Beyond Bulls & Bears

Taking Rational, not Rationalized, Risks

Like beauty, “risk” is often in the eye of the beholder. What might seem “risky” to one person (such as traveling to an exotic destination) might be an exciting adventure for someone else. Wylie Tollette, Senior Vice President and Director of Performance Analysis and Investment Risk at Franklin Templeton Investments, travels around the world, working with portfolio managers to focus on a different kind of risk. He knows that it is impossible to completely avoid risk, even in what may be perceived as a “safe” investment. For his team, coping with the uncertainty means having a process in place to manage these risks, and to ensure the risks being taken are recognized, rational and rewarded. During times of market uncertainty and extreme volatility, investors can feel the best risk-management strategy is to sell everything. However, that strategy can carry risk, too. Tollette explains. [php function = 1]

“We definitely have seen investors seek to avoid risk by retreating to cash and selling out of equities. We would argue, while that response is completely understandable, it really exposes the investor to significant long-term risks, such as inflation and interest-rate risk. It doesn’t allow you to participate in long-term economic growth, and is certainly not conducive to wealth creation. Our process at Franklin Templeton is not focused on avoiding risk, but in fact taking risks—ensuring they are recognized, rational and rewarded. The three “R’s” are the words we use to articulate what our core focus is.”

What do these words mean in terms of our comprehensive, integrated risk-management approach?

• Recognized—Risks should be recognized and understood at the security, portfolio and operational levels.

• Rational—Risk decisions should be an intended and rational part of each portfolio’s strategy.

• Rewarded—Every risk should have commensurate long-term reward potential.

Risk management at Franklin Templeton is really part of the culture; it goes hand-in-hand with investment management. Tollette explains how they fit together.

Wylie Tollette

“Portfolio managers manage risk as they select individual investments and construct portfolios. We supplement the portfolio managers’ activities with my team of 75 global investment risk and performance professionals. They are co-located with the portfolio managers in many of our global locations, and their focus is to take a different perspective on that same portfolio. You can think of it as almost like viewing the portfolio through a different lens—perhaps a quantitative lens. That lens can help identify things in the portfolio that we need to be aware of, and can help ensure any risks are intentional.”

The word “rational” can be pretty subjective when it comes to investing, or anything else. You might have heard the phrase, “penny wise, pound foolish” to describe how people carefully save small amounts of money over time, only to blow it all on one large impulse expenditure.  As humans, it’s easy to rationalize our decisions, even bad ones. But there is a difference between taking risks that are rationalized (which can help us justify almost any behavior) and ones that are rational, which are a sound basis for making investment decisions.  So what does Tollette mean by “rational” when it comes to portfolio risk?

“An investment is rational when it is consistent with the investment mandate of the portfolio, intentional, and not inadvertently arrived at, and finally properly sized in the portfolio. For example, as a portfolio is built up, security by security, stock by stock, bond by bond, it’s possible to gain outsized exposures to a particular attribute like, a country, issuer or a region. As those risk exposures are built up in the portfolio, they can arrive at a point where they become too large—where it’s not an intentional strategy of the manager. Our process is focused on working with the portfolio manager to identify those risk exposures and develop mitigation strategies.”

Tollette shares an example of this process at work when considering investing in a region fraught with uncertainly right now—Europe.

“Our Templeton Global Equity Group, for example, is finding some once-in-a-generation equity values in Europe. Those values will likely take a patient, long-term focus to realize their potential, but they’re consistent with the investment objectives of the Templeton strategies, and the managers are eager to seize the opportunity to add them to the portfolio. The risk management team’s role in that situation is to help the portfolio team estimate and understand how making those additions might impact short-term performance, to ensure that the portfolio can tolerate the short-term volatility in order to realize the value potential in the long term.”

Even the best laid plans can go astray, and when they do, a voice of panic inside our heads can drown out all rational thought. As someone who looks at risk and possible “worst-case” scenarios on a daily basis, Tollette has had practice negotiating rationally with that emotional response.  But he admits it can be easier said than done at times.

“I think all of us have looked back at times where we have had historic levels of market volatility, and recognize those moments when we were staring at the abyss and may have not been thinking through things in a rational way. I find that there are several keys to maintaining perspective. The first is going into those types of extreme markets with a well-diversified portfolio – that is the most important feature in maintaining perspective. Second, I think having some estimate of how a portfolio might behave in an extreme market before it happens is helpful in keeping the long view – my team spends quite a bit of time and energy on that element.  And, last but not least, I think it is tremendously important to partner with a firm that has a long-term focus. If you think about the alternative—partnering with a firm that is not well-versed at maintaining that long-term view during difficult markets—you can think about how that might contribute to the panic.”

So while you can’t predict all of the market’s ups and downs, Tollette says even individual investors can examine risk in their own portfolios by using the process he uses—by ensuring that they are recognized, rational, and rewarded.

“I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but really there’s always some type of uncertainty on the horizon, and if we used uncertainty on the horizon as a reason not to invest, we would never invest. The key is to invest, but with a clear, open-eyed awareness of the risks that you are taking.”

What’s the biggest market risk you see right now? Tell us in our comments.

Want to know more?  Find out what people had to say about risk and other investment concerns in Franklin Templeton’s 2012 Global Investor Sentiment Survey.

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What are the Risks?

All investments involve risks, including potential loss of principal. Diversification does not guarantee a profit or protect against a loss. Stock prices fluctuate, sometimes rapidly and dramatically, due to factors affecting individual companies, particular industries or sectors, or general market conditions. Special risks are associated with foreign investing, including currency fluctuations, economic instability, and political developments. Investments in developing markets involve heightened risks related to the same factors, in addition to those associated with their relatively small size and lesser liquidity.

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One thought on “Taking Rational, not Rationalized, Risks

  1. In the current context of low / negligible returns what does a general risk scenario look like for investment in investment and below investment grade USD bonds in emerging / developing market sovereign and corporate- including banks- bonds.

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