risk analysis

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.