On Investing Risk Tolerance

Determining Risk Tolerance

By Rick Kahler CFP®

If you are new to investing, or if you aren’t sure how much risk you are taking in your current portfolio, it may be helpful to spend a little time to determine your risk tolerance.

A good place to start is by taking a few risk tolerance surveys. A variety of free assessments are available online; three examples are at Vanguard, Schwab, and Morningstar.


I like surveys that express your risk in terms of downside volatility, or how much loss you could tolerate. Most will express the downside in terms of how far your portfolio would have to go down over a 12-month period before you would jump out.

Unless you only look at your portfolio once a year (which I highly recommend), you most likely won’t tend to think of a decline in your investments as being over a 12-month period. Because we all “anchor” on the highest value, it’s more typical to compare a portfolio’s peak value to its lowest point. You may want to ask yourself how far would the markets need to drop from their highs before you would want to get out “before it’s all gone.” It’s important to understand that the peak to trough drop will usually be much higher than the annual drop. For example, in 2008-2009 the peak to bottom drop in some portfolios was 40% when the 12-month drop was closer to 20%.

What is the right number for you?

So, as the Sleep Number bed commercials ask, what is the right number for you?

If your 12-month tolerance is a 15% drop, you will need to be in a very conservative portfolio, perhaps something like an allocation of 25% in equities and 75% in fixed income investments like bonds. If your tolerance is 25%, a 50/50 allocation may fit. For a tolerance of 35%, maybe a 75/25 allocation will be comfortable.

Don’t take these numbers as gospel. There are many, many variables that will determine what is right for you. I use these simply to give you a context that the less of a drop you can stomach in your portfolio before selling out, the lower your allocation needs to be to equities and the higher your allocation needs to be to fixed income.

If your answer to the question of how much risk you are taking in your investment portfolio is, “I have no clue,” now is the perfect time to get a clue. Why? We are in the ninth year of a bull market in stocks, the third longest in history. Also, 22 out of 23 of the last bear markets bottomed in the first two years of the Presidential cycle.


If you find yourself taking too much risk in your portfolio, lighten up on equities and increase your allocation to bonds. Lightening up doesn’t mean selling out of equities. It may mean shifting a 70/30 allocation to a 60/40 or a 50/50. Maybe it means adding some asset classes or investment strategies that do well when stocks drop. Sometimes a slight tweak can do a great deal to keep you in the market when the economy looks to be in a death spiral.

The time to do that tweaking is before the stock market crashes (goes into a bear market), not after. As the six months from September 2008 to February 2009 reminded us, bear markets develop very quickly.


The important thing is to take action today to become aware of the risk that is in your portfolio and assess whether you need to make a change.


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One Response

  1. Allocation and Risk Tolerance

    I am a mid to late career physician contemplating retirement in a few years.

    My current investment portfolio is about 82% stocks [one-third NASDAQ, DJIA and emerging markets]. The remaining 18%, or so, is in cash; no fixed-income investments. And, I plan on a principle conservation strategy, rather than a spend-down strategy, in retirement. First wife, adult offspring, paid for cars and home; no debt with emergency fund. Good health, thus far. We are blessed.

    Any thoughts?



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