Risk and returns

Few things in life come entirely without risk, and the same is true of investments.

Risk and returns (header)

When you make an investment you usually have some idea as to how you’d like it to perform. Often, you have an even clearer view of how you’d like it not to perform – typically, not to lose your money.

The expression ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ doesn’t tell the full story for investments. In reality, the higher the returns you want from an investment, the more uncertainty (or risk) you need to expose your money to.

So it’s important to understand that the more adventurous you are, the greater the chances that things don’t go the way you want. Risks and returns are central to investing.

What exactly do we mean by risk?

Risk is a measure of the chance of something not going to plan, usually for the worse. In everyday life, we are used to facing and managing all kinds of risks, such as slipping on an icy pavement or getting caught in a downpour. 

For investments, we can think of risk as the likelihood of something you’ve bought not performing as you’d expected, particularly if it loses money.

There are many kinds of investment risk, some we're well aware of but others that are less obvious. We’ll look at several of these later in this article.

What are returns?

For investors, return is a measure of what you get back, above the value of your original investment. Savings accounts generally offer specified rates of return, but many investments like shares have rates of return that vary, especially over the short term.

As the value of your investment can go down as well as up, returns aren’t always positive; eg if you sell shares for less than you bought them for, your returns will be negative.

Relationship between risk and returns

There’s no standard formula to calculate the link between risk and returns. Generally, the higher the level of investment risk, the higher the potential return and the greater danger of things going wrong.

Think about it – why is somebody paying you more for your money? It’s because there’s more chance they won’t be able to pay it back. There's no guarantee you will actually get a higher return by accepting more risk. If you're aiming to get higher returns from your investment than you would from say, a savings account, you need to be prepared to take on some investment risk.

It’s also worth remembering that any returns or losses you make on an investment aren’t finalised until you’ve sold up and withdrawn your money. In the words of Lenny Kravitz, 'it ain’t over ‘til it’s over'.

Understand your risk profile

All investments come with a level of risk and don't always perform as expected. This is why you need to make sure you're making the choice that's right for you. It’s also worth thinking about how much money you’d be comfortable losing if things go wrong.

To get a better idea of your own risk profile, ask yourself:

  • What do I need the money for?
    While some investors may have no specific purpose in mind and simply enjoy the act of investing, others are ‘saving for a rainy day’ or have a set a goal for their money like funding retirement, paying for university fees or a wedding.
  • How soon do I need the money?
    The timeframe can have a major influence on investment decisions. Investing over a longer time frame, such as a minimum of 5 years, can help offset short-term fluctuations in investment performance.
  • Will I need access to the money sooner than I think?
    Due to some unexpected event, such as redundancy or serious illness, it’s possible you might need to get your hands on your money sooner than you expected. So think about the ‘liquidity’ of your investments – whether you can sell your investment easily at any time. Certain investments require you to commit to locking in your money for a specified period. For other investments, any need to get your money out at a particular time can mean you’re obliged to sell following a period of poor performance. Conversely, you may find the opposite is true, and your need to sell follows a period of strong gains.
  • Can I afford to lose all my money? 
    Of course, no investor wants to lose it all but some are better cushioned than others to withstand heavy, or even total, losses. As a rule of thumb, consider limiting yourself to not investing more than 10% of your net assets in investments that bring a real risk of losing a significant part, or all, of your money. Your net assets for this purpose should be considered – savings, investments, property (that isn’t your main home), cars etc. minus any debt you owe. When considering high-return investments only invest if you’re prepared, and can afford, to lose all your money. Another important point to consider is whether some investment opportunities could in fact be scams. If it seems too good to be true, it might well be a scam.

Learn more about scams

How can you limit your exposure to risk?

Strike a balance

It’s important to find the appropriate balance of risk and return when making new investment decisions. If you’re seeking higher returns, you need to be willing to take higher risks with your money. On the other hand, if you’re not prepared to take more risks, you should look at investments aiming for more modest returns.

You should also consider your wider financial situation. If you already hold some higher-risk investments, it may be that taking a more cautious approach is appropriate. Conversely, if you have existing low-risk investments and a secure income, you may be happier with a more adventurous approach to new investments that can help you find the right overall balance.

Diversify your investments

Spreading your money across different types of investments, such as international shares and bonds, can reduce your risks. In a properly diversified set of investments, if any one particular investment or market performs poorly, the performance of other investments can help to maintain overall returns and mitigate the impact of losses. 

As diversified investors are less exposed to the peaks and troughs of short-term performance from individual investments, diversification can help to smooth out investment returns over time.

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