In this article, Diana Carolina SARMIENTO PACHON (ESSEC Business School, Master in Strategy & Management of International Business (SMIB), 2021-2022) explains the economic concept of risk aversion, which is key to understand the behavior of participants in financial markets.
Risk Aversion refers to the level of reluctance that an individual possesses towards risk. Specifically, it refers to the attitude of investors towards the risk underlying investments which will directly determine how portfolios are allocated or even how a stock may behave depending on market conditions. To elaborate, when market participants have higher risk aversion due to unfavorable market shocks e.g., natural disasters, bad news or scandals that affect a company or a security, this situation will cause a perception of higher risk leading to many selling, and thus decreasing prices. Therefore, risk aversion should be analyzed carefully.
Risk aversion and investor’s characteristics
It’s important to note that risk aversion can be highly variable over time as this notion changes along with investor profile, in other words with age, income, culture and other key factors, making it even more complex to evaluate than it appears in the traditional economics literature. To illustrate more accurately some of the factors that define an investor profile are:
The older the person is, the more risk averse he or she is. On the contrary, younger individuals tend to be less risk averse which may be due to their high expectations and eagerness to attempt something new as well as the longer timeframe they have, whereas older people prefer safety and stability in their lives.
Individuals with a smaller budget tend to have a higher risk aversion since they have fewer resources, and a loss would make a greater impact on them than a wealthy individual.
When an individual has already experienced some loss, she or he will be more wary of it since it’s now too costly to bear another loss; therefore, risk aversion will be significantly higher. An example of this is the post-crisis, as people have lost so much and this has had a negative impact on their lives, they tend to become more cautious of risk.
For crucial events such as retirement or education, risk version tends to be higher as the individual cannot bear to risk for such a fundamental matter of his or her life.
Investors focused on short-term horizon tend to be more risk averse as they cannot take too much risk due to the short timeline.
Risk aversion and financial investments
Furthermore, risk aversion also takes into account more factors apart from those mentioned above, for this reason most of the time before creating the respective portfolio for an investor, financial advisors shape their client’s risk preferences in order to adjust the portfolio allocation to them. Many times, these can be conducted by questionnaires and tests that will accordingly assign a risk profile concluding with certain risk categories:
- A Conservative profile refers to more risk averse individuals, the portfolios assigned for this type are mainly composed by both more secure & less volatile securities such as bonds, meanwhile stocks have a minimal participation.
- A Moderate profile is attributed to more risk averse individuals who are willing to take more risk, however he or she does not want to step too much further. These portfolios are usually more diversified as they contain more types of securities in different percentages such as government & corporate bonds, and stocks.
- An aggressive profile which is allocated to portfolios mainly composed in the highest percentage by the risky securities. For instance, the main securities could be stocks, specifically growth stocks or even crypto.
Due to all sensitive and private information used by financial institutions, financial regulatory entities are important to ensure the protection and transparency of information, thereby the Mifid (The Markets in Financial Instruments Directive) has been created in the European Union to fulfill such task through the use of rules and general standards.
Measure of risk of financial assets
Additionally, there are other mathematical metrics that can interfere in the risk profile, and depending on these the portfolio may be constructed:
It refers to the volatility of historical data, in other words how dispersed the data is over time which illustrates how risky the security may be. The higher the standard deviation, the higher the risk since this is suggesting that the stock is more variable and there is more uncertainty, thus a risk averse individual prefers a lower standard deviation.
It is linked with the systematic risk that comes with a stock, that is to say it illustrates the volatility compared to the market. Firstly, a beta equal to 1 indicates a volatility and movement equalizing the market, secondly a beta higher than 1 is referred to a security that is more volatile than the market, to illustrate B= 1.50 specifies 50% more volatility than the market. Thirdly, a beta less than 1 stipulates less volatility than the market. Therefore, the lower the beta the less risk exposure is found.
Modern Portfolio Theory & Risk
Introduced by Harry Markowitz in 1950s, the Modern Portfolio Theory illustrates the optimum portfolio allocation that maximizes return given a specific level of risk, in which risk is measured by the standard deviation and the return by the average mean of the portfolio. This explanation also leads to the one- single period mean-variance theory which suggests various portfolio allocations depending on the trade-off between return and risk. However, there are more advance models which explain this scenario in a multiperiod by rebalancing or diversifying further.
Risk aversion and economic conditions
Risk aversion does not only shape the portfolio allocation and its diversification, but it also may have a significant impact on the market as a result of expectations. When there are booming economic times, individuals usually feel more confident and thus less risk averse as a consequence of positive expectations of future cash flows; however, when a recession is coming investors may shift to a more risk averse behavior making them feel afraid of the future which influences them to sell certain stocks and, in this way, making the price plump. Although it may be seen as a simple emotion that defines the fear of risk, it still impacts in a very large extent the financial market as it dictates the roles and strategies behind investing, and thereby it is crucial analyze it carefully.
▶ Youssef LOURAOUI Markowitz Modern Portfolio Theory
▶ Youssef LOURAOUI Implementing Markowitz asset allocation model
▶ Jayati WALIA Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM)
Díaz A and Esparcia C (2019) Assessing Risk Aversion From the Investor’s Point of View Frontiers in Psychology, 10:1490
Desjardins Online brokerage The Risk Aversion Coefficient
Coursera course Investment management
About the author
The article was written in April 2022 by Diana Carolina SARMIENTO PACHON (ESSEC Business School, Master in Strategy & Management of International Business (SMIB), 2021-2022)