black swans

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

© Can Stock Photo / alphaspirit

In 2002 Donald Rumsfeld made headlines when he stood up during a press conference on the case for war against Iraq and proclaimed “there are known unknowns.” At first, this phrase sounds like a silly oxymoron. However, it actually makes a very important distinction. Whenever we are considering our planning, it is important to acknowledge both the risks that we know—the “known unknowns”—and the risks that we don’t—the “unknown unknowns.”

For example, suppose you are thinking about investing in an airline company. You are probably aware of a number of possible risks to an airline: natural disasters, plane crashes, or spikes in fuel prices, to name a few. These are your known unknowns.

Now imagine what happens to your investment if you buy airline stocks and the next day a scientist announces that they’ve built a teleporter that can safely and instantaneously transport people across the globe. Nobody could have foreseen such an outlandish invention—it would be something straight out of science fiction. This would be an unknown unknown, a risk that is so far off your radar you probably would not even think it was worth thinking about.

And you may be right. These risks are by nature rare and unpredictable, so it is practically impossible to plan around them. But it is important to remember that they can and do happen, and to be ready for the possibility. There was a point when heavier-than-air flying machines seemed like an impractical fantasy. Those who bet against the airplane wound up paying for it eventually.

Today, investors and advisor representatives have a wide range of tools to try to quantify the risks of a portfolio. These forecasts are only as good as the models behind them, though—they can only estimate based on the known unknowns, not the unknown unknowns. There is certainly some value in statistical risk analysis, but there is also a real danger in false confidence.

As humans we are pretty bad at understanding probability: a 5-10% chance sounds pretty unlikely, but in practice a 1 in 20 chance is not nearly as rare as we think it is. When we hear numbers like 95% we tend to think of them as being a safe bet. That’s not much comfort if you turn out to be the 1 in 20, though.

Here at Leibman Financial, we have a different approach to risk analysis. It goes something like this:

Everything we invest in has risks. Many of the investments we prefer are more volatile than average. You may lose money.

We do not make these statements because we are fishing for excuses. We are proud of our results and stand behind them. We want you to continue to do business with us, and believe the best way to ensure this happens is to make money for you.

We like to think we do a pretty good job. But we cannot guarantee our results, and we will not inspire false confidence by guessing numbers for you. If you have any concerns about investment risks, feel free to call or email us and we will discuss them to the full extent of our knowledge and understanding.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

The opinions expressed in this material do not necessarily reflect the views of LPL Financial.

Stock investing involves risk including loss of principal.

Ask Your Advisor if Asymmetric Returns Are Right For You

© Can Stock Photo / ivelinradkov

Those who know us best have probably noticed one of our investment tendencies. We lean toward those opportunities where we perceive a high probability they will work out over time. One of the hallmarks of our method is seeking bargain valuations . Quite often, these are in boring but essential industries.

One of our major current themes is the evolution of the automobile. It takes 3 cents worth of electricity to go a mile in an electric car or a hybrid in electric mode. But it takes 10 cents worth of gasoline. The seven cent difference figures out to $175 billion per year in the US1. The change won’t happen overnight, but the economics will only get more compelling over time.

Large global auto manufacturers appear to be trading at bargain prices. One of them has sold hundreds of thousands of hybrids. Another is launching the first all-electric vehicle priced at mass-market prices. Sophisticated suppliers that are bringing new things to the manufacturers also figure into our strategy. These companies are attractive, based on our traditional research methods.

There are other players, however, that do not fit our usual specifications. Silicon Valley is full of disruptive visionaries trying to turn the auto industry upside down. Maybe they are geniuses, and maybe they are nutcases. But if an upstart company can capture 3% of the new vehicle market over the next few years, the payoff may be considerable—or, they could go broke in the face of their many challenges.

A dollar invested could be lost—or could turn into many dollars. There are no guarantees here: this is more speculation than investment. This is what is meant by “asymmetric returns.” It probably won’t work out to where you could make only a dollar or lose a dollar—the potential gain and the potential loss would be symmetrical in that case.

One might consider a small investment in an upstart as a hedge on our other holdings—a way to cover all the bases. We’re not going to change our core investment philosophy. Speculative investments are not appropriate for all accounts, and they will never replace the timeless principles that shape the vast majority of our portfolios. This is an evolution in our thinking and methods and we thought we ought to keep you informed. If you would like to discuss these ideas or other parts of your situation, please write or call.

1. Figures derived from US Department of Transportation statistics and the American Petroleum Institute.


The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

Value investments can perform differently from the market as a whole. They can remain undervalued by the market for long periods of time. Investments mentioned may not be suitable for all investors.