Understanding Risk and Return

You actually don’t need to learn risk and return if you are an Indian, because it is built into our culture.

One reason why IAS type jobs are so very revered by all Indian parents is because they’re so very risk averse. And when I say “they” I mean both Indian parents and IAS type jobs. The biggest draw of being an IAS office is that “naukri pakki hai“. Sure, being an IAS officer will mean that you can’t become the next Zuckerberg, but again, “naukri pakki hai“.

That’s our cultural fascination with the whole engineer/doctor trope too – these used to be educational options that would guarantee you jobs. It didn’t matter if you wanted to do these jobs or not – that wasn’t the point. What mattered is that you stood a fairly decent chance of getting jobs if you had an engineering/medical degree. I should know – I am an engineering dropout.

Given what our economy went through in the 70’s, 80’s and at least the early 90’s, it is an entirely understandable societal response. Screw everything else, land up a job first.

The point I am trying to make is that we, as a nation, were risk-averse. The returns from doing something that you wanted to, whether psychic or financial, weren’t the point. It was about minimizing risk. For all I know, most of us still are risk-averse. The MBA degree isn’t about being an entrepreneur, it is in fact the exact opposite – it is about landing a job.

This risk-aversion spills over into other areas of life as well. Fixed deposits over mutual funds, mutual funds over stocks, and gold and land above all else are also about risk-aversion. Mind you, there is nothing wrong about being risk-averse. Or right, for that matter. At the end of the day, your risk appetite is a function of a whole variety of things, not all of which can (or should) be viewed from the lens of economic theory.

But the one thing that economic theory (well, finance, really) can tell you is the following. If you want risk aversion, you can’t get high returns at the same time. High returns come with high risk, and that’s just the way it is.

Source: Investopedia

This takes us back to our discussion on hedging:

A hedger is somebody who ain’t worried about missing out on a high-paying job later. A hedger prizes certainty. A hedger mitigates risk. The price you pay for mitigating risk – the opportunity cost of risk mitigation – is that you lose the potential upside.

https://econforeverybody.com/2021/02/01/so-what-are-forward-markets-what-is-speculation/

Read the whole post if you haven’t already, but the basic point is that the opportunity cost of safety is low returns. And it cuts both ways: the opportunity cost of aiming for high returns is high risk. A batsman aiming to hit a six is an example of high risk, high returns, and a batsman aiming to defend well is an example of low risk, low returns.

Now, you’ll often hear finance folks talk about barbell portfolios:

Taleb presents the barbell strategy as a bimodal attitude of exposing oneself to extreme outcomes: one extremely risk averse and another very risk loving, while ignoring the middle. The objective of the strategy is to limit downside and to get exposure to extreme upside outcomes. The possible outcomes are more certain, and the risk of exposure to “black swan” events is much smaller.

https://www.gurufocus.com/news/804852/nassim-talebs-portfolio-approach-the-barbell-strategy#

But rather than think about it in terms of financial theory, think about it in terms of MS Dhoni’s innings. He’d perfected the portfolio of shots he’d play in his limited overs innings, and it was a pretty good barbell portfolio. Extremely risk averse at the beginning, and god didn’t we all love the fireworks at the end?

The point is, don’t expect to get high returns when you’re minimizing risk, and vice-versa. But also, don’t try to have the same attitude (completely risk-averse, or completely risk-loving) for every single asset in your portfolio. Minimize risks with most, and go all out on the ones that remain. Nassim Nicholas Taleb and MS Dhoni are telling you the same thing.

And of course, as a student, you should always be asking yourself, where else is this applicable?

EC101: Links for 11th July, 2019

  1. “The two approaches reflect different attitudes toward risk, the role of government and collective social responsibility. Analogous to America’s debate over health insurance, the American philosophy has been to make more resilient buildings an individual choice, not a government mandate.”
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    Risk, how (not) to measure it and therefore understand it. As Taleb is fond of saying, “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence”.
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  2. “Is it possible that interest rates are a net input cost in the Indian context? This existential monetary question is yet to be even acknowledged by economists, let alone addressed.”
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    A superb (and I use the word advisedly) overview of monetary policy and how it works in India.
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  3. “I would challenge my students at the start of the new semester with the following three questions; 1) how much does it cost you to go to the beach (we lived in a coastal city)? 2) should Tiger Woods mow his own lawn? or 3) should Lebron and Kobie go to college?”
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    Opportunity costs, economic costs and accounting costs – all in one article, and therefore a great read.
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  4. “The cornerstone of Harvard professor N. Gregory Mankiw’s introductory economics textbook, Principles of Economics, is a synthesis of economic thought into Ten Principles of Economics (listed in the first table below). A quick perusal of these will likely affirm the reader’s suspicions that synthesizing economic thought into Ten Principles is no easy task, and may even lead the reader to suspect that the subtlety and concision required are not to be found in the pen of N. Gregory Mankiw.”
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    A hilarious (but perhaps only to an economist) take on the ten principles of economics.
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  5. “And the long version of the history is crucial here. It shows that for much of the 20th century, total taxes on the very wealthy were much higher than they are now. Before World War II, the average rate hovered around 70 percent. From the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s, the average rate was above 50 percent.”
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    David Leonhardt on taxing the rich in America. His newsletter is worth subscribing to, by the way.