risk and volatility


I think that defining what risk is is the most difficult topic in finance/investing.

I’m not sure there’s one answer that fits everyone and everything.

We do know that individuals’ perception of what risk entails changes as they age or as their wealth increases; they become more conservative.  We also know that appearances can be deceiving.  A model with a perfectly proportioned body may be clumsy or a terrible athlete.  Experience counts for something, as well.  Situations that appear risky when a neophyte is in control, like in doing brain surgery, may in fact be relatively safe in the hands of an expert.  Information is important, too, like having enough data or experience to know who is the beginner and who is the well-trained seasoned pro.

risk as volatility

Academic finance, and following its lead, pension consultants and their pension fund clients, have all chosen to reduce this complexity to a single concept, risk = volatility.  In other words, the magnitude of day to day price changes in securities. This can be expressed either in absolute form or relative to some benchmark, and may be measured over differing time periods.

Defining risk as volatility has three big advantages:

–easy data availability

–quantitative form


In a world where no one runs with scissors or texts while driving, or where there’s never a flood, a tornado or huge food items falling from the sky (like in Chewandswallow), that would be enough.

In practice, however, volatility isn’t such a hot measure.

On a very abstract level, there’s no recognition of the issue that philosophers have been pondering for the past two centuries or so–that groups may not be connected by every member having a single thing in common.  One alternative is the possibility of “family resemblances” popularized by Ludwig Wittgenstein over a half-century ago.  So maybe there isn’t one common factor that constitutes risk.

On a more practical level, in the real world not everyone has the same information.  History also shows that markets periodically become highly emotional, either wildly optimistic or deeply pessimistic.  My conclusion, based on decades of experience, is that the results of daily trading don’t constitute infallible indicators.  Quite the opposite–most often one should take the evidence of daily trading with a grain of salt.

…but does it trade?

To my mind, though, the most striking failure of volatility as a risk measure is that it doesn’t take liquidity into account.

An example of what I mean:

In the mid 1980s, I came across for the first time academic articles that touted real estate as the most attractive of major asset classes.

How so?

The argument was that since the end of WWII real estate had not only a higher annual rate of return than stocks or bonds, but it also had the lowest average price volatility of the three.  Not only did real estate deliver the highest absolute gains, but adjusting for its low “risk” property ownership looked even better.  This was an odd result, because one typically thinks that reward and risk are directly correlated, not inversely.  But no one questioned it.

real estate

Anyone who has owned a home over an extended period of time, to say nothing of owners of commercial or office real estate, knows this is loony.  In bad times, bank finance disappears and, along with this, so too transactions.  During 1981-83 in the US, when I experienced this phenomenon first-hand, houses could only be sold at extremely steep discounts to pre-recession prices–or to owners’ notions of fair value based on rental equivalents.  Potential buyers made very low-ball offers, prospective sellers took their homes off the market, and no transactions happened.  In the very narrow sense, therefore, volatility was low.  But that was because there were no sales to demonstrate how the market had deteriorated, prices were stable.  You just couldn’t sell.

junk bonds

The collapse of the junk bond market in the late 1980s demonstrated the same idea.  Junk bonds had been touted as having “all the rewards of stocks with all of the safety of bonds.”  The safety part proved an illusion.  The apparent stability of the net asset values of junk bond funds ended up resting in large part on the fact that the bonds they held seldom traded.  So every day the funds priced themselves using more or less the last trade, which might have been weeks ago–and which might not reflect current circumstances.  This idyll lasted until funds began to have net redemptions, forcing them to sell bonds at real market prices, which were often way below their carrying value on  fund books.


the Mainstay Marketfield fund (ii)

I’ve been thinking about the Mainstay Marketfield fund. The I shares (the ones with the longest track record) = MFLDX.

Is this a risky fund?

A lot depends on what you mean by “risky.”  And a lot depends on the time frame you use.

The standard academic way of assessing risk is to equate it with the short-term volatility of returns.  The idea has some initial plausibility.  All other things being equal, and for everyone besides roller coaster junkies, a smooth ride is better than a bumpy one.  Greater assurance that the price tomorrow isn’t going to deviate much from the price today sounds good, as well.

The main virtue of risk-as-volatility, though, is that it’s easily quantifiable and the data for measuring it are readily available.  There’s no need to delve into the actual investments and make potentially messy judgments about what a security/portfolio is and how it works, either.

On this way of looking at things, MFLDX isn’t risky at all.

During late 2008 – early 2009 the fund declined less than the S&P 500.  From the beginning of the bull market in March 2009 until mid-2013 it tracked the S&P relatively closely.  Less volatile in down markets, average volatility in up markets.  Not a bad combination–if this is all risk is.

Regular readers will know that I’m not a fan of this academic orthodoxy–which is, by the way, also universally accepted by the consultants who advise institutional pension plans.  It isn’t only that you don’t need any practical knowledge of the products you’re assessing–just a computer and a data feed.  Nor is it that my portfolios routinely had part of their excess returns explained away by their greater-then-average volatility.  No, it’s that, in my view, for an investor with a three-, five- or ten-year investment horizon whether a security goes up/down a little more or a little less than the market today and tomorrow has very little relevance.

Risk-as-volatility has done serious damage in financial markets in the past.  For years, academics and consultants regarded junk bonds as relatively safe because their volatility was close to zero.  They didn’t realize that the prices never moved  because the securities were highly illiquid and seldom traded.  In fact, during the 1990s, i.e., even after the junk bond collapse of the late 1980s, Morningstar continue to have junk bond funds in the same category as money market funds.  Since NAVs never moved, the former got all the highest ratings.

Back to MFLDX.

Suppose we look at the fund in a commonsense way.

Marketfield’s website portrays ithe firm as consisting of three principals who concentrate on macroeconomics.  The career descriptions indicate that only the director of research, who arrived in 2011, had any prior portfolio management experience.

The group runs a highly sectorally concentrated portfolio.  MFLDX can be both long and short.  It has a global reach.  It can own/sell short stocks, bonds, currencies, sectors, indices.

Despite having all these potentially return-enhancing weapons at its disposal, the fund was unable to outpace an S&P 500 index fund during the first four years of the bull market.

Yes, short-term price fluctuations were not extreme.  And I’m not saying that one could have predicted that MFLDX would be down 12% in 2014, in a market that is up 13%–sparking massive redemptions.  But it seems to me that risk-as-volatility didn’t come anywhere near to capturing the risk elements present in this fund.