What’s a reasonable return on your investments, in your estimation? Do you think of 10% as a good outcome, maybe a little more?
Not if you’re billionaire businessman Sir Richard Branson. The founder of Virgin Airlines, among many other companies, is a lifelong entrepreneur who knows a thing or two about risk and reward. Talking recently with Tony Robbins, himself a paragon of achievement and results-oriented risk-taking, I learned how Sir Richard does it.
Branson, like many of his peers in the rarefied air of super-achievers, takes very little risk when he considers a new venture. Rather, he looks for ways to offload risk onto others. As Branson told Tony in his new book, Money, Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom, the goal is to find a big upside that involves taking as little risk as possible.
Tony calls it “asymmetrical risk-reward.” It’s not quite something for nothing, but it’s pretty darn close. For instance, when Branson was building Virgin, Robbins told me, he struck a deal with the jet manufacturer Boeing to use their passenger planes at no risk to Branson.
“When it comes to business, his number one question is, ‘How do I protect the downside?'” Robbins explained. In the case of Virgin Air, that meant getting to use of a lot of fancy new jets without having to own them if the company didn’t work out.
“If he failed, if the business didn’t work within two years, he could give back all the jets with no downside, no liabilities,” Robbins said. That was the deal, an asymmetrical balance of risk and reward that reduced the risk while keeping alive the potential for significant reward for Branson and his investors.
Most of us, Robbins points out, try to do the opposite: We risk $1 in hopes of making 10 cents. That’s what a 10% return on your investment is, in any given year.
How can you be more like Branson? Well, there are two choices, each compelling in their own way.
The first is to become an entrepreneur. In practice, that’s like saying “become a world-class musician” or “go write a bestselling novel.” Either you have that in you, bursting to get out, or you don’t.
If you don’t, that doesn’t mean you should give up on lowering risk and increasing your upside as a long-term investor.
How? It’s pretty easy. Once you accept that you will have to risk $1 for some smaller fraction in return, focus hard instead on the risk part. What risks do you really run as a long-term retirement investor?
One big risk is market timing, that is, trying to get in an out of the market at precisely the right moments. People get burned by this all the time.
Another is stock picking. Don’t do it. You’re far more protected and more likely to get a steady return from a diversified portfolio that holds many investments in multiple asset classes, both at home and abroad.
A third risk is fees. Paying a broker to “manage” your accounts is a tremendously costly way to save for retirement. Too often, a broker simply buys an already costly mutual fund you could have bought on your own, charging you a bundle while adding absolutely no value.
Finally, it’s important to recognize where the outsized reward in investment really lies — compounding. Even a modest annual amount of savings can turn into millions of dollars at retirement, if the truly big risks are kept in check, namely, market timing, stock picking and needlessly high fees.
You can retire with more, and you can use the secrets of the great entrepreneurs to “stack the deck” in your favor. All it takes is common sense and a bit of discipline.