Risk. It’s a word that makes most of us feel uncomfortable—at best. Even if you’ve been blessed with an appetite for adventure, when it comes to taking risks with money, you may find your stomach feeling a bit queasy. While I can’t recommend skydiving or cliff jumping (especially for my retired clients!) taking the right amount of risk with your money isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s often the best way to help grow your assets to meet your retirement goals.
Anne is one of my favorite examples of a smart risk-taker. She loves (and I mean loves!) Las Vegas. She loves pitting the thrill of victory against the agony of defeat—even when it is her money at stake. And yet, despite her penchant for slot machines, she’s clearly not much of a true thrill-seeker. She has had the same gambling budget since the first day she walked into a casino over 30 years ago, and she’s never lost more than she can afford to lose. “I started with $100 of ‘play money’ in my wallet, and I promised myself I’d never let myself dip below my $20 reserve,” she says with a smile. And she does have something to smile about. Over the years, Anne has won (and lost) thousands of dollars, just playing the slots. “For me, it’s my favorite form of entertainment,” she says. “It’s a ‘safe’ risk that makes my adrenalin go crazy!”
A ‘safe’ risk. What an interesting term.
The dictionary definition of risk—“exposure to danger, harm, or loss”—sends a pretty clear message that risk is something we should avoid if at all possible. And yet, as counterintuitive as it may sound, when it comes to investing, risk is the one thing that drives reward. In fact, in a capitalist economy like ours, investors are paid to take risk. It’s that simple. Every time you invest in a company you are, in essence, assuming ownership of that company and are entitled to the rewards that owners receive. When earnings grow, you reap the rewards. If the company fails, your investment will fail as well. That’s the risk.
In skydiving, the risk is pretty clear—particularly if your parachute doesn’t open! In investing, risk is a bit more complicated. To understand why investment risk is something to embrace, let’s look at the three basic kinds of risk:
- Credit risk. When a bank loans money to a borrower, there is a risk that the borrower may default on the loan. If that happens, the bank loses the principal of the loan, and the interest associated with it. That’s credit risk. Your own credit rating dictates your ability to borrow money and the interest you pay, and the same is true for bonds. Lower-yield Treasury bonds are “safer,” so they pay less than high-yield or “junk” bonds. That means that, as a bond investor, when you take more risk by lending to less credit-worthy borrowers, you get paid more interest.
- Term risk.When you buy a bond or CD, you are lending money for a fixed period. When the bond is due, your money is repaid. When you lend money for a few days, that’s a short term. When you lend money for ten years, that’s clearly a longer term. Long-term is riskier than short-term because you don’t expect the borrower’s situation to change in a month, but in 10 years? Anything can happen. That’s term risk. That is why a one-month CD pays far less interest than a five-year CD. So, term risk is another way investors get paid more to take on more risk.
- Equity risk.Every time you hold stock in a company, you accept the risks of ownership. As an owner, you are paid a share of earnings, and the value of each share increases with company growth. Because of the risk of ownership, investors are paid an equity risk premium to bear uncertainty, price fluctuations, bear markets, business failures, and other perils. Earning the equity risk premium is how investors get paid more for owning stocks.
As an investor, by definition, you must be willing to take some level of risk to reap the rewards. Whether you take on credit risk, term risk, equity risk, or a combination of all three, risk creates value. While risk and reward may not be a perfect relationship, if you add time and discipline to the equation, it’s nearly perfect. It’s what capitalism is all about, and it’s what gives every investor (including you!) the opportunity to leverage assets for continued growth.
Of course, just like Anne and her slot machines, the smartest way to play is to know how much risk you can accept. If you’re a younger investor with years of saving ahead of you, you have time on your side. You can breeze through a bear market, happily buying up equities at sale prices, and waiting for the inevitable bull market to come your way decades from now. If you’re already retired, you may still have years ahead to enjoy growth, but you’ll need a strategy to meet your changing income needs. Whatever your life stage, remember that risk is your friend. Unless you’re skydiving, in which case I can only recommend that you check that parachute just one more time before you jump!