Thursday, October 16, 2008

Learning From this Crisis: A Discussion About Risk

As the financial crisis continues to unfold, it is important to reflect on the lessons we can learn from this experience and how those lessons can help us better manage household finances. In this blog, I want to focus on risk and risk management. Not only have prices in the stock and housing markets, in which many households invest, been gyrating, new financial instruments have made household balance sheets even more sensitive to the behavior of financial markets. For example, both the assets and the liabilities of households with adjustable rate mortgages, or ARMs, will be affected by a change in interest rates. Risk management is becoming more important than ever. Yet, according to several of the surveys on financial literacy I have conducted, the concept of risk diversification proves to be a difficult one for respondents, many of whom stated that they did not know how to answer to the survey question that dealt with this concept.

I want to discuss here the dangers posed by lack of diversification among the assets that are most common in household portfolios.

1. The danger of investing everything in a single stock.

One of the painful lessons that is right in front of us is the peril of investing in a single stock. Sure, all indexes are down and losses are large, but those who have invested solely in the stock of ailing banks now run the risk of losing everything. The importance of keeping a well-diversified portfolio should not be underestimated, particularly in the current situation. Clearly, in a crisis that is becoming global, most stock markets have been going down and portfolio diversification does not eliminate losses. However, it limits them and can provide a floor that prevents losses from being as extreme as they might otherwise be. While the experience of Enron stockholders may have been easy to forget, the magnitude of the current crisis should send a strong warning about the danger of putting all of one’s savings into a single stock.

2. The danger of investing everything in the house.

While we may not think of our house as an investment, in fact the house is often the most important asset we have. In some cases, it is the only asset people have. A large home, a nice backyard, plenty of room where our children can play are all features we want and cherish. However, when we buy, or when we plan to put an addition on the house, we have to consider what that will do to our portfolio. If we put everything we have into the house, we become very exposed to fluctuations in home prices. As the current experience shows, home prices can go down, and go down a lot! And we should not take comfort in the fact that we do not plan to sell our house any time soon. In the current labor market, mobility is important. Today’s workers change jobs many times in the course of a career, and one can hardly expect to be in one place throughout his/her lifetime. Moreover, and particularly in less populated areas, houses are not a good “hedge” against labor income risk. If a big firm in a small city goes under, local home prices are likely to drop. But this means that home values will decrease precisely when workers need their housing wealth the most: they may have to sell and move or they may need a home equity line of credit to offset the loss of employment income.

Risk is a part of our life, negative shocks happen, crises happen, and other shocks may lie ahead. More than ever before, we need to learn to deal with risk to insure the well-being of ourselves and our families.

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