In a recent column in The Globe and Mail, Rob Carrick wrote about a financial adviser who says he is investing based on a new fangled strategy called “the risk barbell”. A barbell is an asset allocation strategy that provides exposure to asset classes at the two extreme ends of the risk spectrum. The adviser says he puts three quarters of his portfolio in low risk assets such as Government bonds and the rest in high-risk penny mining stocks. It is very hard to evaluate a strategy such as this without knowing more about the risk-return characteristics of penny mining stocks.
It is true that an investor can obtain spectacular returns by picking the right penny stock. If you had picked up Aber or Aurelian Resources back when they were penny stocks, your investment would have become a ten bagger many times over. But that’s a bit like saying if you pick the right combination in the LottoMax draw, you can turn a $5 “investment” into $50 million. The key question is how likely is it that an investor will pick a winner out of the thousands of penny mining stocks that trade on the Venture exchange?
Research into penny mining stocks is hard to come by but I did find one study that looked at returns on stocks trading in the over-the-counter (OTC) markets in the US. The study covered a 9-year period and examined the returns from more than 7,000 stocks that traded in the OTC. The findings in the paper, titled Do investors overpay for stocks with lottery-like payoffs? An examination of the returns on OTC stocks, will be sobering for investors interested in penny stocks. It found that more than half the stocks in the sample lose more than 95% of their value (and in the interest of fairness, it must be mentioned that slightly less than 1 percent of the stocks in the sample returned 1,000 percent or more) and average annual returns were -30 (minus thirty) percent. A $1,000 investment in OTC stocks would, on average, turn into $30 over a 10 year period.
If penny mining stocks were to have similar return characteristics as US OTC stocks, an investor can, on average, expect a total loss of the capital allocated to the risk portion over time. One would hope that this particular risk barbell strategy does not require an investor to regularly rebalance her portfolio!