What is Idiosyncratic Risk?

Idiosyncratic risk is a type of investment risk, uncertainties and potential problems that are endemic to an individual asset (like a particular company's stock), or group of assets (like a particular sector's stocks), or in some cases, a very specific asset class (like collateralized mortgage obligations). It is also referred to as specific risk or unsystematic risk.

As the latter synonym implies, the opposite of idiosyncratic risk is systematic risk, which is the overall risk that affects all assets, such as fluctuations in the stock market or in interest rates—or the entire financial system.

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Idiosyncratic Risk

The Basics of Idiosyncratic Risk

Idiosyncratic risk can be thought of as the factors that affect an asset such as a stock and its underlying company at the microeconomic level. It has little or no correlation with risks that reflect larger macroeconomic forces, such as market risk. Research suggests that idiosyncratic risk accounts for most of the variation in the uncertainty surrounding an individual stock over time, rather than market risk.

Company management's decisions on financial policy, investment strategy, and operations are all idiosyncratic risks specific to a particular company and stock. Other examples can include the geographical location of operations and corporate culture. In terms of industry or sector, an idiosyncratic risk for mining companies would be the exhaustion or the inaccessabiity of a vein or a seam of metal; the possibility of a pilots' or a mechanics' strike would be an idiosyncratic risk for airlines companies.

key takeaways

  • Idiosyncratic risk refers to the inherent factors that can negatively impact an individual security or a very specific group of assets.
  • The opposite of Idiosyncratic risk is systematic risk, which refers to broader trends that impact the overall financial system or a very broad market.
  • Idiosyncratic risk can be mitigated n an investment portfolio via diversification.

While idiosyncratic risk is by definition irregular and unpredictable, studying a company or industry can help an investor to identify, and anticipate in a general way, its idiosyncratic risks. Idiosyncratic risk is also highly individual, even unique in some cases. It can, therefore, be substantially mitigated or eliminated from a portfolio by using adequate diversification. Proper asset allocation, along with hedging strategies, can minimize its negative impact on an investment portfolio by diversification or hedging.

In contrast, systematic risk cannot be mitigated just by adding more assets to an investment portfolio; market risk cannot be eliminated by adding stocks of various sectors to one's holdings. These broader types of risk reflect the macroeconomic factors that affect not just a single asset but other assets like it and greater markets and economies as well.

Pros

  • Individualized, limited impact

  • Can be mitigated via diversification, asset allocation

Cons

  • Unpredictable

  • Protection requires knowledge of asset or sector

Real World Examples of Idiosyncratic Risk

In the energy sector, the stocks of companies that own or operate oil pipelines face a sort of idiosyncratic risk that's particular to their industry—that their pipelines may become damaged, leak oil and bring about repair expenses, lawsuits or fines from government agencies. Unfortunate circumstances like these may cause a company such as Kinder Morgan Inc. (KMI) or Enbridge, Inc. ENB), to decrease distributions to investors and cause the stock shares to fall in price.

Another example of idiosyncratic risk is a company's dependence on the CEO. For much of its history, and certainly its breakout sucess in the 2000s, Apple Inc. was synonymous with its co-founder, Steve Jobs. When Jobs fell ill and took a leave of absence from the company in 20101, Apple's stock continued to appreciate in absolute terms, but its valuation relative to price multiples fell. After Jobs took another leave in early 2011, resigning as CEO in August and passing away in October, Apple's stock traded lower—briefly. Jobs was known for being a visionary and turning around Apple; as such, his leadership was part of Apple's success and its stock price. Yet, ultimately, faith in the company and its products prevailed, and Apple stock now trades near $200 per share in May 2019 (compared to $57 per share at Jobs' death)—overcoming its inherent idiosyncratic risk.