How to reduce your Risk Part III

Trick question (click here for the question, and here for the answers)
There is no right answer because risk cannot be minimised.
It can only be transformed from one type into another.

What did people choose?

Option A was the most common answer. For those who trade in financial markets, this may be surprising.

If I reframed the question and asked:

  • Please calculate the DV01 of Options A and B
  • Please calculate the VAR of Options A and B
  • Please tell me which of A or B has greater risk

You would quickly work out that B has zero DV01 and zero VAR. Hence by the definition of risk used on trading floors, A has higher risk. Unsurprisingly asking this question to a room of traders at investment banks, I get the overwhelming answer B because that is the context in which they think about “risk”.

If I ask the question to people who work in property or private equity, then I am more likely to get the answer A as certainty of cashflow is critical, especially when thinking about assets and liabilities. In the accrual accounting world of regular banking, they think about Earnings at Risk (EAR) and Option A is the way to reduce the risk.

The answer given likely relates to your personal circumstances and the exact framing of the question. If I had the time running a series of experiments with slightly different wording, rates or quantities I think would give interesting results.

But for now, the practical lesson is important. People do not instinctively understand risk at all well. We are presented with questionnaires from investment advisors which ask us for our risk preferences with no definition of risk. From the results of typically recommended portfolios, it would suggest that bonds are low risk and equities high risk.

My approach

I think that the best way to think of this question is in terms of a balance sheet. Whether choice A or B “reduces” your risk depends on the extent to which it matches the tenor of your liabilities. If your liability is short term then Option B is the sensible answer. For investment banks, they have no corresponding long-term liability apart from capital. They typically hold wafer-thin amounts of capital against market-to-market assets so naturally recognise A as a risk. For someone who is keenly aware of what they see as fixed longer-term liabilities such as paying school fees or retirement expenses then the choice of a long-term asset i.e. Option A, is far more natural.

Risk matters

Whenever risk gets mentioned, I very rarely observe a discussion of this nature. Often only one side of the balance sheet is being examined and the vastly important implicit assumptions from the liability side are not considered. I am an advocate of multiple forms of risk measurement, including VAR, but only if it is used in the correct context. Many of the worst financial disasters have occurred by taking a risk and accounting concept that was appropriate in one context and transplanting it to another. AIG and Enron are the biggest ones that spring to mind.

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