Understanding Risk

Few terms in personal finance are as important, or used as frequently, as "risk." Nevertheless, few terms are as imprecisely defined. Generally, when financial advisors or the media talk about investment risk, their focus is on the historical price volatility of the asset or investment under discussion.

Advisors label as aggressive or risky an investment that has been prone to wild price gyrations in the past. The presumed uncertainty and unpredictability of this investment's future performance is perceived as risk. Assets characterized by prices that historically have moved within a narrower range of peaks and valleys are considered more conservative. Unfortunately, this explanation is seldom offered, so it is often not clear that the volatility yardstick is being used to measure risk.

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