By Allison Schrager
March 14, 2022
These are uncertain times, but we’ve never lived with less risk. That may sound crazy coming out of a pandemic that disrupted our lives in uncountable ways — and now we may be on the brink of World War III. But there is a big difference between risk and uncertainty, and each requires different coping strategies. Risk can be managed with insurance or hedging; Uncertainty demands flexibility.
That's important to know when making big life decisions like buying a house, changing jobs, having a baby, retiring or even adjusting your portfolio.
Risk includes things we can measure and see coming, uncertainty arises from the things that take us by surprise. Society has become very adept at measuring and managing risk with the help of data and technology. We see this in the stock market, in the housing market, and even our culture where data can increase the odds we’ll enjoy a movie on Netflix or a song on Spotify. When it comes to things we can measure, much less is left to chance. And if we can’t eliminate risk we can insure against it: using stock options as insurance against a falling share price, for instance.
Since the 1970s we've had more ways than ever to manage or eliminate risk in markets, in the economy, and in many aspects of our daily lives. The payoff was rising markets, low inflation (until recently), and stable wages and jobs. So we're gobsmacked when we're hit by something we didn't expect — like pandemics and wars that send the world spinning.
For most of human history people lived with uncertainty and risks they couldn't manage. Violent wars and deadly disease outbreaks were a fact of life. This changed in the 20th century when the government took on more of our risk; Welfare programs eased hardship, countries cooperated through international organizations and more trade, and technology gave us more tools to insure against risk. In the 1970s the word risk became associated with something you could manage or avoid.
But the last two years may mark a new era. We can still manage risk and have better tools to so, but in the new world order it's about managing uncertainty — a much more difficult proposition. You can’t plan for the unforeseeable.
It's still possible to manage the risks that arise from uncertain times, but it requires a different strategy — it takes resiliency. Governments and central banks had the flexibility that made the pandemic less bad than it might have been. They had the fiscal space and credibility to throw tons of money at the pandemic with enhanced unemployment benefits, stimulus checks and massive purchases of debt. The mRNA technology is remarkably flexible, and scientists used it develop a vaccine in record time.
Now the Russian invasion of Ukraine poses a new source of uncertainty: Cold War economics, nuclear weapons, food shortages, cyber attacks, China's reaction to everything — all are impossible to predict. We have risk-management tools in fiscal policy and in re-engineering global markets such as energy, and that will help make the crisis less risky. But as the last two years have shown, risk-control can’t shut out uncertainty. And individuals must figure out how to manage their own lives.
Our first instinct when faced with more uncertainty is to avoid making decisions, bulk up on cash, don’t relocate, wait on retirement and avoid new debt. But the heightened uncertainty may last a long time and you can’t just keep your life on hold. Cash is normally attractive when times are uncertain, but with inflation today it's not a safe strategy either. We still need to invest in risky assets and if you put off a house, baby, or job change you may be waiting a long time.
So to manage uncertainty, the best thing you can do is promote resilience by not taking excessive risk and promoting flexibility in your life. Invest in stocks, but avoid assets that are illiquid or excessively volatile. If you are thinking about retirement, you needn’t have to wait, you just need to keep your options open for a possible return to part-time work.
The same principle applies if you are considering buying a house or changing jobs. Rather than going for that big fixer-upper in an up-in-coming neighborhood, buy a smaller house in a better neighborhood that you know you can easily resell if the housing market sours. It could be planning on a part-time job if you go back to school, or a side hustle if you take a less stable job. Or, when it comes to cyber risk, hold on to paper copies of your bank statements and make sure your computer is backed up to the cloud or an external hard drive.
We’ve been fortunate this past half-century to live in a world with remarkably little risk most of the time. But it's also made us more vulnerable in other ways. We discount the unexpected because we rarely experience the costs of bad shocks. Companies hold fewer inventories when they don’t worry about global supply chains breaking down; we take on more debt if we don’t expect to lose our jobs, or we might book a non-refundable trip when we can’t imagine a pandemic disrupting travel plans.
The last two years have reminded us that that no matter how much we minimize risk, we can't plan for everything. We must build more options into our lives so that we feel less helpless when something big does go wrong.
Allison Schrager is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of "An Economist Walks Into a Brothel: And Other Unexpected Places to Understand Risk."
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