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8 Tips for Assessing Your Client’s Risk Tolerance

A financial advisor meets with a pair of clients to discuss their risk tolerance.

Do you know how much financial risk your client can comfortably handle? Risk tolerance, is an important measure in financial planning that reflects how much a client is willing to endure in potential financial losses. It can establish the level and type of investment risk that a client can handle, making it an essential component when crafting a suitable investment strategy. As a financial advisor, you must accurately assess your client’s risk tolerance and provide investment advice that aligns with their willingness – or hesitance – to take on risk.

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What Is Risk Tolerance?

Risk tolerance determines the extent of investment return variation an individual is willing to endure, thus influencing their investment strategies. In simple terms, it gauges how much loss or risk an investor is willing to take on for an investment.

To better explain risk tolerance to clients, have them think of it like the suspension system on a vehicle. A car with high-quality shock absorbers (a high risk tolerance) can comfortably navigate rough terrain (volatile market situations). On the other hand, a car with a basic suspension system (a low risk tolerance) would be better off sticking to smooth, paved roads (low-risk investments), avoiding potential damage.

A lot goes into determining a client’s risk tolerance, but some of the key factors include their age, financial goals, time horizon and financial obligations. These factors are not fixed and can change over time, affecting investment decisions and the advice that an advisor renders.

How to Assess Your Client’s Risk Tolerance

Weighing risk and reward is an important component of selecting investments that align with the client's risk tolerance.

As an advisor, it’s essential to remember that there’s no “one-size-fits-all” when it comes to risk tolerance. It’s a highly individualistic aspect depending on personal circumstances, and neither a high nor a low risk tolerance is inherently better than the other. Each of your clients must understand their specific risk tolerance to make informed and appropriate investment decisions.

Understanding a client’s risk tolerance will help you tailor a financial plan that fits their needs and goals. To do this effectively, you need a comprehensive understanding of your client’s entire financial picture, including their income, assets and liabilities, as well as their time horizon and even their psychology. Here are eight common things to consider when determining the risk tolerance of a client:

1. Use a Risk Tolerance Questionnaire

Using a risk tolerance questionnaire can offer a more comprehensive understanding of your client’s financial situation and goals. This tool can help you evaluate a client’s comfort level with investment risk. Typical questions might explore the client’s financial status, investment objectives and attitudes towards risk. Financial advisors can obtain these questionnaires from reliable sources, including professional organizations like the Financial Planning Association or financial services companies like Morningstar, Vanguard and Charles Schwab.

2. Identify Their Goals

Risk tolerance is often closely tied to a client’s financial goals. For instance, consider a client saving for a short-term goal such as a house down payment – they may have a lower risk tolerance than someone investing for a long-term goal like retirement. A comprehensive interview and goal-setting tools can help clients identify and prioritize their financial goals.

3. What Is Their Time Horizon?

Time horizon is the anticipated duration (years or months) during which an investment will be held before it is liquidated for a specific goal. And this can significantly influence a client’s risk tolerance. For example, a younger client saving for retirement may have a longer time horizon and thus a higher tolerance for risk when compared with an older client planning to retire soon. The longer the client’s time horizon, the more time they have to recover from past losses and the more risk they can potentially assume.

4. Consider Behavioral Biases

Behavioral biases, such as loss aversion or overconfidence, can influence risk tolerance. Advisors can assist clients in identifying and managing these biases through open discussions, client education and by introducing strategies to counteract these biases. As the advisor, you may encourage a client to reflect on how they responded to market turmoil in the past. Did they sell off their investments in a panic? Did they double down on losing investments? Answers to questions like these may offer a window into the client’s psychology, giving you a better understanding of how they react to market changes.

5. Evaluate Their Capacity to Take on Risk

Risk capacity, unlike risk tolerance, refers to the level of financial risk a client can afford to take. For example, a client with a high income and few financial obligations may have a higher risk capacity than risk tolerance. Advisors can assess a client’s risk capacity by examining their family situation and financial status, including their net worth, income stability and future obligations.

6. Explain Risk-Return Tradeoff

The risk-return tradeoff is the principle that potential returns rise with an increase in risk. In simpler terms, low-risk investments usually yield low returns, while high-risk investments offer the potential for higher returns. Advisors can educate their clients about this tradeoff using clear explanations and real-world examples, helping them make informed investment decisions.

7. Document Your Risk Discussions

Documenting the conversations you have with clients about their risk tolerance can help you customize your recommendations and track changes over time. To do this effectively, maintain detailed notes, use standardized forms and regularly update client profiles to reflect changes in their risk tolerance or financial situation.

8. Regularly Review Their Risk Tolerance

Lastly, regular reviews of a client’s risk tolerance are essential. Changes in their financial situation or personal circumstances, such as marriage, divorce or retirement could trigger a need for a review of their risk tolerance. By regularly reviewing and adjusting the investment portfolio, advisors can ensure that a client’s financial plan and investments align with their current risk profile.

Bottom Line

A financial advisor shakes hands with two clients after discussing their risk tolerance.

Understanding and managing risk tolerance is a fundamental aspect of successful financial planning. A client’s risk tolerance is a measure of their capacity to endure potential financial losses. It’s influenced by their age, financial goals, income level, among other factors. As a result, risk tolerance is a highly individualized concept with no “one-size-fits-all” approach, requiring you to help your clients make informed decisions based on their unique circumstances.

Tips for Growing Your Financial Advisory Business

  • If you’re looking to expand your financial advisory business but want to do it in an efficient, streamlined manner, consider partnering with SmartAsset. We match fiduciary financial advisors with clients across the U.S., helping you to grow your client base conveniently online.
  • Adding high-net-worth clients can help you scale your business and knowing where to find them is an important part of that process. A recent SmartAsset study found that Spokane Valley, Washington; Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Evansville, Indiana have seen the most growth among high-income households in recent years.

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