Investing risk and reward

Your range of investment choices — and their relative risk factors — is often described as a pyramid. You can think of it as having a solid cash base that’s large enough to cover three to six months of living expenses, a substantial center section made up of limited- and moderate-risk investments, and a small number in the higher-risk category at the top.

Of course, your situation may be different, which would mean making other choices. For example, if you have the assurance of a lifetime pension, you might feel more comfortable taking more risk with your personal investments. Or, if you’re solely responsible for other people’s financial welfare, you may be reluctant to take much risk at all.

Lower-risk investments, such as insured bank deposits, guarantee that you’ll get your money back, plus interest, at maturity. Higher-risk investments, such as stock in a new company, have no guarantees, and you could lose some or all of your principal. But if the company succeeds, your investment could be worth lots of money. Limited- and moderate-risk alternatives include many stocks and bonds and the mutual funds and exchange traded funds (ETFs) that invest in them. While a return isn’t assured, a well-diversified mix of these investments can provide a combination of income and growth in value.

There’s no such thing as zero risk. Each type of investment exposes you to the risk of some loss — whether diminished buying power or actual loss of principal. And there are always factors you can’t control — such as a recession, an oil embargo, or high inflation.

Investment strategies

You can adapt your investment-picking approach from those of financial professionals, or you can develop one on your own. Two things you’ll want to keep in mind, whatever method you use, are the importance of diversification, or variety, in your portfolio, and the need for a strategy, or plan, to guide your choices.

Remember that the strength of the financial markets is never the result of how well — or how poorly — a single investment does, but how a portfolio of different ones performs over a period of time.

Investment approaches

The places you choose to put your money reflect the investment strategy you’re using — whether you realize it or not. Most people adopt one of three approaches or some combination of them:

  • Conservative: Take only limited risk by concentrating on cash equivalents, high-rated fixed-income investments, and some large-company stock
  • Moderate: Take some risks by putting money into stock, stock mutual funds, stock managed accounts, exchange traded funds (ETFs), and some bonds
  • Speculative or aggressive: Take major risks on investments with unpredictable results



What you risk

You take different risks with different types of investments. With corporate and municipal bonds, the risk is that the issuer will default, and not repay the principal and interest, or that the market value will fall. With stocks, the main risk is loss of principal, if the share decline in value or the company goes bankrupt. With some leveraged investments, though, you can lose more than the amount you invest if what you expect to happen doesn’t occur.

Taking risks

If you take no chances, you run the risk of coming out short of your goals. The more you have in the safest investments such as bank savings accounts and short-term US Treasury bills, the smaller your chance of substantial return over the long term. That means an increased risk of outliving your assets because they won’t keep up with inflation.

Similarly, the more you speculate, the greater the risk of losing your principal entirely. Often, the more people understand about the principles of investing, the more apt they are to take the moderate approach, balancing their risks against the kind of results they want.

That way, you can also afford to invest a small amount in higher-risk opportunities, and keep some assets insured — and liquid — to meet immediate cash needs.

Other risks

In addition, you need to take other kinds of risk into account, including volatility and the effect of changing market conditions on investment yield.

Volatility means sudden swings in value — from high to low, or the reverse. The more volatile an investment is, the more profit you can make, since there can be a big spread between what you paid and what you sell it for. But you must also be prepared for the price to drop. If you sell on a dip, you may lose money.

When stock or bond markets drop or interest earnings decline, many people seek investments with the same yield, or income from investment principal, they got in better times. They risk buying lower quality, often unfamiliar, investments. But the search for higher yields can result in higher losses as well.

Investors who sell when market prices drop — as prices do from time to time — not only risk taking an immediate loss but also give up the opportunity to benefit if the prices go back up since they are no longer invested. That doesn’t mean you should never sell an investment that loses value, but it does mean you should evaluate the reasons for the drop and the prospects for recovery before you act.

Risk vs. return: What’s the trade-off?

When it comes to investing, trying to weigh risk and return can seem like throwing darts blindfolded. Investors don’t know the actual returns that securities will deliver, or the ups and downs that will occur along the way.

Looking to the past can provide some clues, though historical returns can never predict future performance. Over several decades, for instance, investors who put up with the stock market’s gyrations have earned returns far in excess of bonds or cash investments like Treasury bills.





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