The Best Risk Questionnaire (Bonus: It’s Free!)

Answer the following questions with complete honesty:

  • Did I buy equities in October and/or November of 2018?
  • If so, what did I buy?
  •  Why?

This exercise will give you a pretty good idea of how you handle market volatility. Not in a theoretical, highly-abstracted, mean-variance optimized way but in the visceral OH-MY-F*ING-GOD-this-stock-I-own-just-fell-40%-WTF-do-I-do-now?!?!? kind of way.

In other words, this exercise gets you thinking about risk in the only terms that matter.

Many people have told me, “oh when the market goes down stocks are on sale so I buy. Buffett says to be greedy when others are fearful.”

Most of them are liars.

People overstate their risk tolerance in bull markets. Ask the crypto people how much time they spent thinking about risk last December. Ask the FANG cheerleading section how much time it spent thinking about risk in 1Q18. I bet if you’d given these investors risk questionnaires they would’ve come back showing an extreme willingness to take financial risk. Everyone feels like Warren Buffett when the tape is printing big, fat green numbers day after day.

In the financial advice business we like to pretend we can put neat little numbers around people’s risk tolerance. We give them risk questionnaires or gussied-up, Millennial-friendly versions of risk questionnaires to match them with a model portfolio that ultimately ends up being the usual 80/20 or 60/40 or 70/30 mix you’d give someone just from eyeballing her age. Maybe we go 50/50 if she seems particularly elderly and infirm.

All of this is nonsense. It is scientism.

The way you measure someone’s true risk tolerance is to look at how they’ve allocated real dollars of their hard-earned cash. If a prospect shows up in your office with $500,000 in a bank savings account and no equity investments whatsoever, you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t like taking risk. If someone shows up with $1,000,000 of a $2,000,000 portfolio in small cap biotech stocks and another $500,000 in rental properties with a bunch of debt on them you know you’ve got a gunslinger on your hands.

Simple. Easy. Robust.

Yes, guy in the back, I can hear you muttering something under your breath about “investor education.” “Some of those people with $500k sitting at the bank just don’t understand investing and that’s why they sit in cash.” So what? Their willful ignorance further underscores their risk aversion.

People who are extremely tolerant of financial risk seek out risk on their own initiative. In business we call these people “entrepreneurs.” They may sometimes take risk in stupid ways, by reading scammy stock newsletters or buying a bunch of Litecoin or whatever, but their propensity for risk taking clearly manifests itself in their portfolios.

To steal blatantly from Taleb, this is a “skin in the game” thing.

Ignore what people say.

Pay close attention to what they do.

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