The “efficient frontier” concept is a key to investment success. A graph demonstrating the efficient frontier is shown below.

Any expected return (left side of graph) carries with it an expected risk (bottom of graph). This risk-reward relationship varies from individual to individual. Conservative investors cannot tolerate more than a low level of risk, and are willing to accept a return commensurate with that level of risk. More aggressive investors are willing to tolerate higher levels of risk in the expectation of higher returns.

The efficient frontier is a line on the graph that represents a series of optimal risk-return relationships. That is, every dot on the line represents the highest return for a given level of risk or, stated conversely, the lowest risk for a given rate of return. Conservative investors will aim for a spot on the left side of the efficient (low return, low risk) while aggressive investors will aim for the right side (high return, high risk). If your portfolio (present or proposed) falls on the efficient frontier line, it has an optimal risk-return relationship, but nonetheless still may not be suitable for you because it may be too aggressive or too conservative. Your portfolio should be at that spot on the efficient frontier that approximates your particular risk-return goal.

Note: The efficient frontier is the result of mathematical calculations of expected risk and return. Risk is shown in levels of standard deviation, a commonly used measure of volatility.

As shown on the graph, if you are willing to tolerate an expected risk (standard deviation) of, say, 12, then you can reasonably (not definitely) expect an approximate return of 10% over a period of time (Portfolio C) – if your portfolio is efficient.

It is unlikely, over time, that returns will be higher than those shown on the efficient frontier. Of course, you may, in specific instances, achieve a higher return than that shown, but your average return over time will generally not exceed the amount shown.

If your portfolio falls below the efficient frontier, then it is “inefficient” in that it exposes you to too much risk for the specified return or, conversely, provides too low a return for the specified risk. Unfortunately for investors, most portfolios fall substantially below the efficient frontier.

Example: Portfolio A represents an inefficient portfolio in that it falls below the efficient frontier, meaning that the investor might reasonably expect a return of 10% for a risk of 25. However, if the investor is comfortable with that risk level, he can theoretically increase his return to 12% with no increase in risk by making his portfolio efficient (i.e., modifying it to resemble Portfolio B, which is on the efficient frontier). Conversely, if he wants to lower his risk, he can maintain the 10% return while reducing the risk to12 (by modifying his portfolio to resemble Portfolio C on the efficient frontier).

Portfolio D is also efficient (as are B and C, all on the efficient frontier), but represents a portfolio that will enjoy a lower return with lower risk.