3 Investment Risk Challenges In The Modern Age

Traditional risk management tactics like using savings accounts as a safe harbor have been undermined by low interest rates. See how to approach investment risk in the modern age.
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Betas, Sharpe Ratios and the other typical metrics of investment risk are so 20th century. This century has produced new twists that often defy traditional views of investment risk.

Here are some realities of investment risk in the modern age:

How the low interest rate environment changes everything

Essentially, risk management is about choices – choosing one investment over another because of their respective risk/reward characteristic. However, the low interest rate environment has skewed those choices, for both investors and policy makers.

Here are three ways the low interest rate environment has made risk management more difficult:

1. It cuts down on monetary policy options

Cutting interest rates has been the Federal Reserve’s go-to move during financial slowdowns, but with the Fed funds rate close to zero, there are fewer monetary policy options open if the economy needs a stimulus.

2. It penalizes investors for avoiding risk

Historically, when investors wanted to avoid risk, they could still earn a few percent in a savings account, and even more in government bonds. Now, with savings account rates near zero and Treasury bonds yielding less than 3 percent, being risk-averse is a more costly exercise. Trying to avoid big losses can mean having to accept steadily losing purchasing power to inflation.

3. It drives people into riskier assets

As a consequence of the unattractive alternatives offered by savings accounts and bonds, investors are being driven into the stock market. This is not because stocks look so good, but because interest rates make lower-risk choices unappealing.

High valuations can make portfolios riskier than meets the eye

The stock market has been more or less flat so far this year, but that apparent calm belies the true degree of risk in stocks right now. Here are some reasons to be concerned:

1. Low rates have made valuations artificially high

The price/earnings ratio of the S&P 500 has been above 20 since the beginning of the year, which is a fairly steep valuation this deep into an economic cycle. Low interest rates can be credited with driving valuations higher, which means a rise in rates will remove an important source of support for stock prices. It is a little troubling to think that prices could be sent tumbling just by interest rates returning to normal.

2. Valuation affects returns, even for low risk stocks

In a May/June 2015 issue of the Financial Analysts Journal, Luis Garcia-Feijoo, Lawrence Kochard, Rodney N. Sullivan and Peng Wang demonstrated that the investment success of supposedly low-risk stocks depends greatly on the price paid for those stocks. This is especially sobering when, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, so many investors have sought low-risk strategies, driving valuations on those types of stocks up.

3. Backward-looking risk measures may reflect the opposite of the future

Traditional risk management techniques center on the notion that risk is measurable. What is readily measurable about investments is their past performance. As a result, risk management often relies on the assumption that the future will repeat the past to some extent. This assumption becomes especially problematic when the past several years have been dominated by a falling interest rate environment that has driven rates down to almost zero. There is virtually no way that these conditions will be repeated going forward, and they very well could be reversed if interest rates rise to more normal levels.

Why international diversification has its limits

A possible solution to concerns about the U.S. economy and stock market is to invest internationally, but the way markets have developed international diversification only has limited value as a risk management technique, for the following reasons:

1. Trade inter-dependence

Trade among nations means their economies are less independent of one another than they used to be. In particular, it is hard to completely diversify away from U.S. economic risks because so many nations are dependent on the U.S. as a consumer of their goods.

2. Monetary influence

The Fed does not have complete independence in making monetary policies because there can be adverse currency consequences to stepping too far out of line with the interest rate policies of other nations.

3. Global investment momentum

Another study in the May/June 2015 Financial Analysts Journal, by Timothy K. Chue, Yong Wang and Jin Xu, found that international diversification did little to reduce momentum-driven risks because investor behavior tends to follow similar patterns across borders.

The most devastating risks are the unexpected ones. The best way to cut down on the possibility of being caught unprepared is to challenge your assumptions. This means not being comforted by traditional risk management theories, and instead considering what could go wrong under today’s conditions.

Frequently asked questions

Q: Will the U.S. follow a zero interest rate policy like Japan for many years? Countries such as Switzerland, Japan, China, and Singapore have held rates low for a long time, either recently or in the past. Is the U.S. headed in this direction?

A: I think we are already there.

Your question is very relevant, because the Fed has not only kept short rates near zero, but it has taken pains to signal that it will keep rates there for an extended period of time.

Of course, you can question the effectiveness of this approach –not only because of the halting recovery here in the U.S., but because of the Japanese example you cite. The Japanese have seen twenty years of anemic growth despite near-zero interest rates. That’s not to say that the low interest rates are the cause of these problems, but as a stimulative measure, they can be an example of what economists call “pushing on a string.”

Meanwhile, not only have low interest rates been an ineffective stimulus, but low Fed rates mean low bank rates, and there is a cost to low bank rates. With most CD rates as well as rates on savings and money market accounts running below the rate of inflation, savers have been losing purchasing power. That’s money that has been effectively sucked out of the economy — and that’s anti-stimulative.

Someone as renowned as Ben Bernanke is for knowing economic history is undoubtedly aware of the failure of low interest rates to revive the Japanese economy. What is less clear is what he thinks will be different this time around.

About Author
Richard Barrington has been a Senior Financial Analyst for MoneyRates. He has appeared on Fox Business News and NPR, and has been quoted by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, CNBC and many other publications. Richard has over 30 years of experience in financial services. He has earned the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) designation from the Association of Investment Management and Research (now the “CFA Institute”).