Many aspects of life require careful consideration and balancing of the tradeoffs that arise from competing demands. For example, a common lifestyle tradeoff is working longer hours versus spending more time with your family. The competing demands within this decision are the income necessary to provide a suitable quality of life for your family versus the immeasurable benefits of quality time with your family. There is no right answer, but most people understand the tradeoff and attempt to find the balance that is right for them.
Successful investing and financial planning also require balancing tradeoffs. For example, a common investment tradeoff is that of risk and return. One of the competing demands is preservation of capital versus preservation of purchasing power. The former may allow for a better night’s sleep during periods of heightened uncertainty and corresponding volatility, but the latter helps ensure you’ll have a comfortable bed in the future when accounting for rising prices from inflation. Once again, there is no right answer, no “optimal” solution. Understanding the tradeoffs between preserving capital and preserving purchasing power will help investors find the balance that is right for them. This balance will depend on their definition of risk and attitude towards it.
Some investors may consider risk to be volatility. They have difficulty stomaching the daily ups and downs associated with investing in asset classes that experience significant price fluctuations, such as equities, because declining prices are often accompanied by predominantly negative headlines. Although information will be reflected in prices before one can react to it, this is little solace to investors who extrapolate the recent past into the future and see the bad news as an indicator of what’s to come rather than a commentary on what has already happened. These investors yearn for short-term preservation of capital.
Other investors may define risk as a diminishing standard of living. They have long-term financial obligations, such as spending during their retirement years, and their primary goal is building wealth to meet those future expenses. They recognise that, while the cumulative effects of inflation are sometimes glacially slow or even undetectable in real time, inflation can be the silent killer of a financial plan. These investors desire long-term preservation of purchasing power.
Investing is relatively straightforward when the definition of risk and attitude toward it are so black and white. For example, you can virtually guarantee the preservation of capital by investing in the equivalent of UK government gilts as long as you accept the corresponding potential for the loss of purchasing power. On the other hand, you can preserve purchasing power by investing in asset classes with expected returns exceeding inflation, providing you accept price fluctuations that can temporarily impair your capital.
Unfortunately, in practice, investing isn’t that simple. Individual investors rarely have black and white objectives or well-defined definitions of and attitudes towards risk. Some expect long-term preservation of purchasing power and short-term preservation of capital. Making matters worse is the tendency for the priority and relative importance of their competing demands to change through time, often in response to what’s happened in the recent past.
Investors who succumb to the cycle of fear and greed end up chasing a moving target. Advisors can try to mitigate this destructive behavior by focusing investors on the tradeoffs that were made at the outset when determining their balance between assets that are expected to grow faster than inflation and those that stabilise the portfolio and reduce its fluctuations. So if an investor is now fearful and therefore more focused on capital preservation, it is time to reframe the tradeoffs by emphasising why growth assets were in the portfolio to begin with and how the so-called “riskless” asset (i.e., gilts) can actually be extremely risky in the long run.
However, the tradeoff for pursuing higher expected returns of equities is accepting the risk of substantial declines compared to the relative stability of gilts.
Investors may still want to revisit the tradeoffs they made and alter course if appropriate. However, changes to a long-term plan should reflect an informed decision rather than an emotional one. Fear and greed are powerful forces, but we should resist letting them dictate the tradeoffs we make in our lives or in our portfolios.