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The Building Blocks of Portfolio Risk Management

The Building Blocks of Portfolio Risk Management - When markets are rising
Lowell Parker

By Lowell Parker, Wealth Advisor CFP®
Published On 07/12/2022

When markets are rising, risk management seems easy—invest, sit back, and watch your investments grow. Things get a bit trickier when the markets experience volatility and decline. These are the times when you need to understand the amount of risk your investments are subject to and how that risk relates to your financial plan.

The first and least tangible measure of risk is qualitative in nature: how much risk are you willing to take? How would you feel, for example, if the markets declined more than 20%? What if the markets fell by more than 40%? Generally, what is the level of decline that you are comfortable with that will encourage you to stay invested and allow for your plan to thrive? Take some time to think about it. While it is easy to come up with a threshold or a hypothetical number, it is different in real time (consider the financial crisis or the markets’ initial response to the COVID outbreak, for example).

Once we have a handle on your subjective feelings around risk, there are a variety of tools we use here at Merriman Wealth Management to help our clients manage the quantitative measures of risk.

First and most important is answering this question: what is the amount of risk my portfolio can take within the context of my financial plan? This is a super important question. Too often, folks will bifurcate their investment and financial plans. This does not typically lead to successful outcomes. We manage this for clients by calculating statistically valid risk and return measures for our clients’ portfolios—i.e., we expect an all-equity portfolio to return 9.52% net of fees per year with a standard deviation of 20.49. A more moderate 60% equity portfolio would return at 7.95% and 13.06, respectively. Understanding these figures within the context of your accumulation and distribution plans is what matters. The typical recipe is for folks in their early years to take on more risk, as they have time for the markets to recover from declines. In contrast, folks later in life have less time to recover, and a more moderate portfolio is conducive to their plan.

The next risk management tool to understand centers around the sequence of returns. While one can craft statistically valid long-term expectations for portfolio risk and return, it is extremely difficult to predict returns in any given year. Consider 2020: who would have thought the markets would have rebounded so swiftly?

One thing to keep in mind with respect to sequence risk is what we call “bad timing.” What happens if you retire (switch from accumulating to decumulating) and the markets have two successive bad years? This is a good stress test for your portfolio. Pass this test, and your plan is likely in good shape.

The next measure to consider is the longer-term variability of returns. We measure this by running 1,000 different return trials for our clients (Monte Carlo analysis), effectively looking at everything from years of sustained above-average performance to years of sustained below-average performance and everything in between. The results are considered a success if greater than approximately 80% of the trials result in money remaining at the “end” of your plan.

In conclusion, consider the list of questions below as you evaluate the risk metrics of your plan:

  • What are the risk dynamics of my current portfolio, and how do these relate to my financial plan?
  • What is the outcome of my financial plan if I retire and the markets have two successive bad years?
  • How am I accounting for the sequence of returns? What is my plan’s probability of success—will I have money left at the end of my plan?


Here at Merriman Wealth Management, we live by our tagline of “Invest Wisely. Live Fully.” If you are a Merriman client, we’ve got you covered. If you are not a Merriman client and would like a holistic review of your financial plan and corresponding risk metrics, let us know, and we would be happy to take you through our complimentary Discovery process.


Disclosure: The material is presented solely for information purposes and has been gathered from sources believed to be reliable, however Merriman cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of such information, and certain information presented here may have been condensed or summarized from its original source. Merriman does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice, and nothing contained in these materials should be relied upon as such. Nothing in this presentation in intended to serve as personalized investment, tax, or insurance advice, as such advice depends on your individual facts and circumstances. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.  Advisory services are only offered to clients or prospective clients where Merriman and its representatives are properly licensed or exempt from licensure. No advice may be rendered by Merriman unless a client service agreement is in place.

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Lowell Parker

By Lowell Parker, Wealth Advisor CFP®

Lowell developed a passion for finance in high school, after some hard lessons learned. Now as a Wealth Advisor, he appreciates the opportunity to help his clients articulate, achieve, and expand on their financial and associated life goals. He particularly enjoys working with mid-career technology professionals.

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