Even if you are new to investing, you may already know some of the most fundamental principles of sound investing. How did you learn them? Through ordinary, real-life experiences that have nothing to do with the stock market.

For example, have you ever noticed that street vendors often sell seemingly unrelated products – such as umbrellas and sunglasses? Initially, that may seem odd. After all, when would a person buy both items at the same time? Probably never – and that’s the point. Street vendors know that when it’s raining, it’s easier to sell umbrellas but harder to sell sunglasses. And when it’s sunny, the reverse is true. By selling both items- in other words, by diversifying the product line – the vendor can reduce the risk of losing money on any given day.

If that makes sense, you’ve got a great start on understanding asset allocation and diversification. Asset allocation involves dividing an investment portfolio among different asset categories, such as stocks, bonds, and cash. The process of determining which mix of assets to hold in your portfolio is a very personal one. The asset allocation that works best for you at any given point in your life will depend largely on your time horizon and your ability to tolerate risk.

  • Time Horizon – Your time horizon is the expected number of months, years, or decades you will be investing to achieve a particular financial goal. An investor with a longer time horizon may feel more comfortable taking on a riskier, or more volatile, investment because he or she can wait out slow economic cycles and the inevitable ups and downs of our markets. By contrast, an investor saving up for a teenager’s college education would likely take on less risk because he or she has a shorter time horizon.
  • Risk Tolerance – Risk tolerance is your ability and willingness to lose some or all of your original investment in exchange for greater potential returns. An aggressive investor, or one with a high-risk tolerance, is more likely to risk losing money in order to get better results. A conservative investor, or one with a low-risk tolerance, tends to favor investments that will preserve his or her original investment. In the words of the famous saying, conservative investors keep a “bird in the hand,” while aggressive investors seek “two in the bush.”

Risk versus Reward

When it comes to investing, risk and reward are inextricably entwined. You’ve probably heard the phrase “no pain, no gain” – those words come close to summing up the relationship between risk and reward. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise: All investments involve some degree of risk. If you intend to purchases securities – such as stocks, bonds, or mutual funds – it’s important that you understand before you invest that you could lose some or all of your money.

The reward for taking on risk is the potential for a greater investment return. If you have a financial goal with a long time horizon, you are likely to make more money by carefully investing in asset categories with greater risk, like stocks or bonds, rather than restricting your investments to assets with less risk, like cash equivalents. On the other hand, investing solely in cash investments may be appropriate for short-term financial goals.

Why Asset Allocation Is So Important

By including asset categories with investment returns that move up and down under different market conditions within a portfolio, an investor can protect against significant losses. Historically, the returns of the three major asset categories have not moved up and down at the same time. Market conditions that cause one asset category to do well often cause another asset category to have average or poor returns. By investing in more than one asset category, you’ll reduce the risk that you’ll lose money and your portfolio’s overall investment returns will have a smoother ride. If one asset category’s investment return falls, you’ll be in a position to counteract your losses in that asset category with better investment returns in another asset category.

The Connection Between Asset Allocation and Diversification

Diversification is a strategy that can be neatly summed up by the timeless adage “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” The strategy involves spreading your money among various investments in the hope that if one investment loses money, the other investments will more than make up for those losses.

Many investors use asset allocation as a way to diversify their investments among asset categories. But other investors deliberately do not. For example, investing entirely in stock, in the case of a twenty-five year-old investing for retirement, or investing entirely in cash equivalents, in the case of a family saving for the down payment on a house, might be reasonable asset allocation strategies under certain circumstances. But neither strategy attempts to reduce risk by holding different types of asset categories. So choosing an asset allocation model won’t necessarily diversify your portfolio. Whether your portfolio is diversified will depend on how you spread the money in your portfolio among different types of investments.


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