All investments carry some degree of risk. Stocks, bonds, mutual funds and exchange-traded funds can lose value—even their entire value—if market conditions sour. Even conservative, insured investments, such as certificates of deposit (CDs) issued by a bank or credit union, come with inflation risk. That is, they may not earn enough over time to keep pace with the increasing cost of living.
What Is Risk?
When you invest, you make choices about what to do with your financial assets. Risk is any uncertainty with respect to your investments that has the potential to negatively impact your financial welfare.
For example, your investment value might rise or fall because of market conditions (market risk). Corporate decisions, such as whether to expand into a new area of business or merge with another company, can affect the value of your investments (business risk). If you own an international investment, events within that country can affect your investment (political risk and currency risk, to name two).
There are other types of risk. How easy or hard it is to cash out of an investment when you need to is called liquidity risk. Another risk factor is tied to how many or how few investments you hold. Generally speaking, the more financial eggs you have in one basket, say all your money in a single stock, the greater risk you take (concentration risk).
In short, risk is the possibility that a negative financial outcome that matters to you might occur.
There are several key concepts you should understand when it comes to investment risk.
Risk and Reward
The level of risk associated with a particular investment or asset class typically correlates with the level of return the investment might achieve. The rationale behind this relationship is that investors willing to take on risky investments and potentially lose money should be rewarded for their risk.
You can learn about risks associated with specific investments by going to the Risk tab for each investment listed in our Investment Products section.
In the context of investing, reward is the possibility of higher returns. Historically, stocks have enjoyed the most robust average annual returns over the long term (just over 10 percent per year), followed by corporate bonds (around 6 percent annually), Treasury bonds (5.5 percent per year) and cash/cash equivalents such as short-term Treasury bills (3.5 percent per year). The tradeoff is that with this higher return comes greater risk.
And although stocks have historically provided a higher return than bonds and cash investments (albeit, at a higher level of risk), it's not always the case that stocks outperform bonds or that bonds are always lower risk than stocks.
Time Can Be Your Friend or Foe
Based on historical data, holding a broad portfolio of stocks over an extended period of time (for instance a large-cap portfolio like the S&P 500 over a 20-year period) significantly reduces your chances of losing your principal. However, the historical data should not mislead investors into thinking that there is no risk in investing in stocks over a long period of time.
For example, suppose an investor invests $10,000 in a broadly diversified stock portfolio and 19 years later sees that portfolio grow to $20,000. The following year, the investor’s portfolio loses 20 percent of its value, or $4,000, during a market downturn. As a result, at the end of the 20-year period, the investor ends up with a $16,000 portfolio, rather than the $20,000 portfolio she held after 19 years. Money was made—but not as much as if shares were sold the previous year. That’s why stocks are always risky investments, even over the long-term. They don’t get safer the longer you hold them.
This is not a hypothetical risk. If you had planned to retire in the 2008 to 2009 timeframe—when stock prices dropped by 57 percent—and had the bulk of your retirement savings in stocks or stock mutual funds, you might have had to reconsider your retirement plan.
Investors should also consider how realistic it will be for them to ride out the ups and downs of the market over the long-term. Will you have to sell stocks during an economic downturn to fill the gap caused by a job loss? Will you sell investments to pay for medical care or a child’s college education? Predictable and unpredictable life events might make it difficult for some investors to stay invested in stocks over an extended period of time.
You cannot eliminate investment risk. But two basic investment strategies—asset allocation and diversification—can help manage both systemic risk (risk affecting the economy as a whole) and non-systemic risk (risks that affect a small part of the economy, or even a single company).
Hedging (buying a security to offset a potential loss on another investment) and insurance products can provide additional ways to manage risk. However, both strategies typically add (often significantly) to the costs of your investment, which can eat away at returns. In addition, hedging typically involves speculative, higher risk activity such as short selling (buying or selling securities you don't own), trading in complex products such as options or investing in illiquid securities.
The bottom line is that all investments carry some degree of risk. By better understanding the nature of risk, and taking steps to manage those risks, you put yourself in a better position to meet your financial goals.
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