Idiosyncratic Risk

What Is Idiosyncratic Risk?

Idiosyncratic risk is a type of investment risk that is endemic to an individual asset (like a particular company's stock), or a group of assets (like a particular sector's stocks), or in some cases, a very specific asset class (like collateralized mortgage obligations). Idiosyncratic risk is also referred to as a specific risk or unsystematic risk. Therefore, the opposite of idiosyncratic risk is a systematic risk, which is the overall risk that affects all assets, such as fluctuations in the stock market, interest rates, or the entire financial system.

Key Takeaways

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

Idiosyncratic Risk

Understanding Idiosyncratic 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. Idiosyncratic risk can be thought of as the factors that affect an asset such as the 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. Microeconomic factors are those that affect a limited or small portion of the entire economy, and macro forces are those impacting larger segments or the entire economy.

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 example of idiosyncratic risk for mining companies would be the exhaustion or the inaccessibility of a vein or a seam of metal. Likewise, the possibility of a pilots' or a mechanics' strike would be an idiosyncratic risk for airline companies.

Idiosyncratic Risk vs. Systematic Risk

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. This 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.

  • Individualized, limited impact

  • Can be mitigated via diversification, asset allocation

  • Unpredictable

  • Protection requires knowledge of asset or sector

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, and 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 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 success in the 2000s, Apple Inc. (AAPL) was synonymous with its co-founder, Steve Jobs. When Jobs fell ill and took a leave of absence from the company in 2010, 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. Ultimately, faith in the company and its products prevailed, and Apple stock recovered to reach new highs through early 2020.