A good friend of mine called me the other day to ask me what I thought about some mutual funds that his broker suggested he buy. The broker said the funds would return 7-8% per year and they are super safe investments with minimal volatility.
I took a quick look at the funds and all 4 had MORE volatility than the S&P 500 with LESS returns. To add insult they were all about 90% correlated to the S&P 500. So basically they were just crappier versions of the stock market.
These mutual funds were down between 20-50% in 2008. I am not sure if I would describe that kind of price movement as "safe." Besides, why invest in a mutual fund when just buying the stock market through the SPY ETF gets you better returns, less volatility, and lower fees? Brain scratch? Not really. This particular broker doesn't earn much of a fee if his clients invest in ETF's.
After seeing the funds had the potential to go down between 20-50% if another 2008 were to happen, my friend could easily identify that these kinds of investments might not be a great fit given his objectives. Of course the broker focused more on the reward rather than the risk so the potential downside was never discussed.
We can't know every risk before walking into an investment. And there is nothing to say that we are guaranteed to have another 2008, but a wise man once told me "your biggest drawdown is in front of you." This means that the next calamity will be worse than prior ones and if we invest with this in mind, we can take steps that allow us to live to invest another day.
That doesn't mean sit with cash under your mattress and go buy a bunch of guns (been there done that). It means that your EXPECTATIONS on investing should reflect a fair measure of the risk of loss in a given day, week, month, year...etc.
If you own stocks and you would be surprised if they went down 30% in one year, then you are fooling yourself. Maybe you should own less stocks. If you are ok with them falling 30% because you have a long term horizon and would welcome an opportunity to buy more should the market drop, then that sounds like a plan worth sticking to.
Expectations management and discipline separate the good from the ugly.
I put a piece together that talks about the idea of having some knowledge of the expected volatility in advance and it was recently published on the CBOE website (link). Felt like it is relevant for this blog too.