Asset allocation

Risk is an implicit aspect to investing

If you are going to invest you need to be prepared to take some calculated risk in the hope of greater reward. Risk is an implicit aspect to investing: shares can fall, economic conditions can change and companies can experience varying trading fortunes.

The process of deciding what proportion of your investment portfolio should be invested in the different types of investment is called ‘asset allocation’.

Asset classes
The various asset classes come with different levels of risk (volatility of returns) and thus deliver different expected returns over the medium to long term. But, no one asset class always performs best over an investment period. Asset classes consist of a group of securities with varying degrees of risk.

There are three main asset classes:

Bonds (also referred to as fixed income)

Each asset class has different investment characteristics, for example, the level of risk and potential for delivering returns and performance in different market conditions

Equities (also known as ‘ordinary shares’, or ‘shares’) are issued by a public limited company, and are traded on the stockmarket. When you invest in an equity, you buy a share in a company and become a shareholder. Equities have the potential to make you money in two ways: you can receive capital growth through increases in the share price, or you can receive income in the form of dividends. Neither of these is guaranteed and there is always the risk that the share price will fall below the level at which you invested.

Bonds, also referred to as ‘fixed income securities’, are issued by companies and governments as a way of raising money and are effectively an ‘I.O.U’. Bonds provide a regular stream of income (which is normally a fixed amount) over a specified period of time, and promise to return investors their capital on a set date in the future. Once bonds have been issued, they’re bought and sold between investors without the involvement of the issuer. Bonds are generally considered to offer stable returns, and to be lower risk than equities – and hence deliver lower returns than equities.

Cash tends to be held within a bank account where interest can be gained. Alternatively, cash funds use their market power to get better rates of return on deposits than you would get in an ordinary bank account. They often invest in very short-term bonds known as ‘money market instruments’, which are essentially banks lending money to each other. In addition, cash funds can provide exposure to global currencies, which may not be easy to purchase on the open market and could be costly transactions.

Different characteristics for risk
These asset classes have different characteristics for risk. When you are young you may want to invest in assets with a higher potential for growth but greater risk, because you have the time to benefit from their long-term growth. As you get closer to retirement you may want to choose more conservative investments that are steadier in both risk and return.

There is a wide variety of different asset classes available to invest in and commensurate risks attached to each one. While these implicit risks cannot be avoided, they can be mitigated as part of the overall investment portfolio by diversifying.

If you put all of your eggs in one basket, you are more vulnerable to risk. Different investments behave in different ways and are subject to different risks. Saving your money in a range of assets helps reduce the loss, should one of your investments suffer a downturn.

A need to diversify
There is also a need to diversify within each type of investment. This is especially important in the case of share and bond investing, but can even be true of cash, where the risks are generally lowest. Putting all your money in one deposit account runs the risk that the interest paid on that account will change relative to other accounts. This could mean that the interest you receive is no longer as good as when you originally invested.
It is important to remember that all investments have a degree of risk. Even choosing not to invest is risky. The key is to get the right balance. Most people need a mix of assets in order to achieve their goals. The mix required depends upon individual needs.

By spreading your investments over a wide range of asset classes and different sectors, it is possible to avoid the risk that your portfolio becomes overly reliant on the performance of one particular asset. Key to diversification is selecting assets that behave in different ways.

Different ‘styles’ of investing
Some assets are said to be ‘negatively correlated’, for instance, bonds and property often behave in a contrarian way to equities by offering lower, but less volatile, returns. This provides a ‘safety net’ by diversifying many of the risks associated with reliance upon one particular asset. It is also important to diversify across different ‘styles’ of investing, such as growth or value investing, as well as across different sizes of companies, different sectors and different geographic regions.

Growth stocks are held as investors believe their value is likely to grow significantly over the long term, whereas value shares are held because they are regarded as being cheaper than the intrinsic worth of the companies in which they represent a stake. By mixing styles that can out- or under-perform under different economic conditions, the overall risk rating of the investment portfolio is reduced. Picking the right combination of these depends on your risk profile, so it’s essential to seek professional advice to ensure that your investment portfolio is commensurate with your attitude to investment risk.

A ‘paper loss’
The important thing to remember with investments is that even if your investment goes down, you will only actually make a loss if you cash it in at that time. When you see your investment value fall, this is known as a ‘paper loss’ as it is not a real loss until you sell.
If you are going to invest, you need to be prepared to take some risk and to see at least some fall in the value of your investment.

While all investments carry an element of risk, the amount of risk you take directly affects any potential returns and losses. Generally speaking, if there is less risk to your investment, your money will grow more slowly and with more risk your investment may fluctuate more.

Currency risk
You should also be aware of currency risk. Currencies (for example, sterling, euros, dollars and yen) move in relation to one another. If you are putting your money into investments in another country, then their value will move up and down in line with currency changes as well as the normal share-price movements.

Another consideration is the risk of inflation. Inflation means that you will need more money in the future to buy the same things as now. When investing, therefore, beating inflation is an important aim. Investing in cash may not beat inflation over the long term.

Past performance is not necessarily a guide to the future. The value of investments and the income from them can fall as well as rise as a result of market and currency fluctuations and you may not get back the amount originally invested. Tax assumptions are subject to statutory change and the value of tax relief (if any) will depend upon your individual circumstances.

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