Here are the major asset classes, in ascending order of risk, on the investment risk ladder.
A cash bank deposit is the simplest, most easily understandable investment asset—and the safest. It not only gives investors precise knowledge of the interest that they’ll earn but also guarantees that they’ll get their capital back.
On the downside, the interest earned from cash socked away in a savings account seldom beats inflation. Certificates of deposit (CDs) are less liquid instruments, but they typically provide higher interest rates than those in savings accounts. However, the money put into a CD is locked up for a period of time (months to years), and there are potentially early withdrawal penalties involved.
A bond is a debt instrument representing a loan made by an investor to a borrower. A typical bond will involve either a corporation or a government agency, where the borrower will issue a fixed interest rate to the lender in exchange for using their capital. Bonds are commonplace in organizations that use them to finance operations, purchases, or other projects.
Bond rates are essentially determined by interest rates. Due to this, they are heavily traded during periods of quantitative easing or when the Federal Reserve—or other central banks—raise interest rates.
A mutual fund is a type of investment where more than one investor pools their money together to purchase securities. Mutual funds are not necessarily passive, as they are managed by portfolio managers who allocate and distribute the pooled investment into stocks, bonds, and other securities.
Most mutual funds have a minimum investment of between $500 and $5,000, and many do not have any minimum at all. Even a relatively small investment provides exposure to as many as 100 different stocks contained within a given fund’s portfolio.
Mutual funds are sometimes designed to mimic underlying indexes such as the S&P 500 or the Dow Jones Industrial Average. There are also many mutual funds that are actively managed, meaning that they are updated by portfolio managers who carefully track and adjust their allocations within the fund. However, these funds generally have greater costs—such as yearly management fees and front-end charges—that can cut into an investor’s returns.
Mutual funds are valued at the end of the trading day, and all buy and sell transactions are likewise executed after the market closes.
Many investment specialists advise their clients to diversity into a wide range of securities rather than focusing on just a few stocks.
Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs)
Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) have become quite popular since their introduction back in the mid-1990s. ETFs are similar to mutual funds, but they trade throughout the day, on a stock exchange. In this way, they mirror the buy-and-sell behavior of stocks. This also means that their value can change drastically during the course of a trading day.
ETFs can track an underlying index such as the S&P 500 or any other basket of stocks with which the ETF issuer wants to underline a specific ETF. This can include anything from emerging markets to commodities, individual business sectors such as biotechnology or agriculture, and more. Due to the ease of trading and broad coverage, ETFs are extremely popular with investors.
Shares of stock let investors participate in a company’s success via increases in the stock’s price and through dividends. Shareholders have a claim on the company’s assets in the event of liquidation (that is, the company going bankrupt) but do not own the assets.
Holders of common stock enjoy voting rights at shareholders’ meetings. Holders of preferred stock don’t have voting rights but do receive preference over common shareholders in terms of the dividend payments.
Some investments, such as hedge funds, are only permitted to wealthy investors.
There is a vast universe of alternative investments, including the following sectors:
Real estate: Investors can acquire real estate by directly buying commercial or residential properties. Alternatively, they can purchase shares in real estate investment trusts (REITs). REITs act like mutual funds wherein a group of investors pool their money together to purchase properties. They trade like stocks on the same exchange.
Hedge funds: Hedge funds may invest in a spectrum of assets designed to deliver beyond market returns, called “alpha.” However, performance is not guaranteed, and hedge funds can see incredible shifts in returns, sometimes underperforming the market by a significant margin.
Typically only available to accredited investors, these vehicles often require high initial investments of $1 million or more. They also tend to impose net worth requirements. Hedge fund investments may tie up an investor’s money for substantial time periods.