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Risk Tolerance Image

Mutual Fund Education

The Influence of Recent Market Returns on the Risk Tolerance of Individual Investors (Part 1)

Larry Swedroe Apr 26, 2016

The Recency Effect

Rui Yao and Angela Curl—authors of a 2011 study, Do Market Returns Influence Risk Tolerance? Evidence from Panel Data, which appeared in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues—hypothesized that the recency effect would dominate rational economic behavior. They posited that risk aversion is negatively related to recent market returns (or, in other words, that risk tolerance is positively related to recent market returns).

  • Consistent with the recency theory and their hypothesis, there was a significant positive linear relationship between S&P 500 returns and respondent risk tolerance.
  • Controlling for time and other independent variables, a one percentage point increase in market returns increased the probability of taking substantial or high risk by 1%. A one-standard-deviation increase in S&P 500 returns increased the likelihood of taking substantial or high risk by 15.7%.
  • When the stock market is falling, average monthly investor risk tolerance scores are strongly correlated with changes in the S&P 500. However, when stock prices start to rise, changes in average risk tolerance seem to be largely uncorrelated with the market.

Yao and Curl also found that:

  • Each additional year of age above the sample mean decreased the likelihood of taking some risks by 2%—consistent with theory and prior research showing that the likelihood of being in the high-risk or some-risk groups decreases as people age.
  • Higher educational attainment was consistently predictive of higher levels of risk tolerance.
  • Investors with greater financial assets reported lower levels of risk tolerance. This is consistent with the theory of declining marginal utility of wealth.

The authors concluded that investors don’t behave according to rational economic model assumptions, and that “such changes in risk tolerance in response to market returns may be an indication that investors, and possibly their financial advisors, overestimate their ability to understand risk and assess individual risk tolerance.”

These findings suggest that individuals invest more after periods when market returns are high and withdraw partially or even completely from the market after periods when returns have been poor. Yao and Curl reached the conclusion that their findings support “the projection bias hypothesis and confirms the recency effect.” What’s more, their findings on investor behavior are consistent with those from the field of behavioral finance.

Behavioral Finance

Yao and Curl’s findings are also consistent with those of Robin Greenwood and Andrei Shleifer, authors of a 2014 study, Expectations of Returns and Expected Returns. They were able to document a strong negative correlation between investor expectations of stock returns and recent returns for the S&P 500—investors change their expectations of the reward from taking risk based on recent changes in stock market returns.

The financial crisis of 2008 provided a good example of how recency impacts investor risk tolerance. During the crisis, individual investors pulled out hundreds of billions of dollars from the equity market. The result was that, by 2010, portfolio allocations to risky assets had declined to their lowest level for people under the age of 35 in the history of the Survey of Consumer Finances.

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