No one wants to lose money. However, sometimes investors have to deal with the fact that their investments might drop below cost for certain periods. But by how much, for how long and how likely is this to happen? These are fundamental questions that every investor should ask.
Much has been written about types of risk, but far less on the "quantum," namely how much your investments can decline and for how long. Generally, an investment that can lose a lot can gain just as much, but this article's focus is on losses.
Money in the bank is normally considered risk-free, disregarding inflation, but as one moves up the risk ladder through bonds, equity funds, individual equities, foreign funds, futures and so on, the amount that can be lost (or gained) increases. The process is sometimes gradual and sometimes in leaps and bounds.
It is not possible to put exact figures on what you can lose, but estimates can be made that are reliable enough to give you a good idea of what you are getting into. Also, what matters most is the relative, rather than the absolute declines or losses. That is, the fact that you can lose relatively far more with equities than with bonds is the core issue, not the actual percentages, which are extremely variable and unpredictable.
Let's take a bond fund, which is generally the next step up from cash in terms of safe investments. If times are bad for bonds, you stand to lose a few percent. Usually, emerging-market bonds could be much riskier than domestic bonds and roughly equivalent to equities in terms of risk. For this reason, domestic bonds are considered a low-risk investment.
An equity fund is a big step up. Generally, the volatility is high; charts of these markets' ups and downs are quite radical. Also note that most funds move roughly in line with the market. Unless you are with a fund that has a really serious risk-management strategy, do not expect the market to go down by 30% and your fund manager to ensure that your fund only drops by 5%. This is not the way it usually works. Equity funds are thus medium-to-high risk, depending on the assets they contain.
Note also that even if a particular fund is intrinsically medium risk, if equities are all you have in your portfolio, you are still in a high-risk situation. The risk you are taking with your money really must be seen in overall context of your other investments and assets.
Moving on to individual equities, you can lose a lot more. What is invested in one company that runs into bad times could plunge up to 100% in a few weeks or even days. For this reason, funds are lower risk than individual equities. But a portfolio of 10 to 30 stocks with good risk management can be a whole lot more stable.
Currencies are also highly volatile, and they can rise and fall by 20% or 30% within months. And if you have foreign equities, you could find that capital losses are compounded by currency losses (known as currency risk). Alternatively, the capital losses can be counterbalanced partly or largely by currency changes. However, this is a precarious game that needs to be played knowingly and with care, meaning with constant monitoring and control.
Futures and other highly leveraged investments are really top of the risk ladder. If things go wrong, you can lose it all overnight.
The above figures are guides for normal times; that is, a normal business cycle. There are periods in which things can be a lot worse (or better). For instance, there are individual years in which an equity investment can lose you 50%. Likewise, a truly dreadful year for bonds can lose you 20%, but such periods are few and far between.
With respect to the length of ups and downs, equity and bond cycles vary, but the losses can be there for between a few weeks to a few years. There are also freak periods throughout history in which some other asset class performs outstandingly for a couple of decades, or appallingly for equally long. There can also be trends within trends; that is, short cycles within a longer-term trend. In summary, it is very difficult to know how long the losses will be there. For this reason, work in terms of the potential losses and what you can afford, rather than the notion that you can simply "wait until they go up." Nonetheless, the shorter your investment horizon, the less risk you should take.
This is a complex issue and beyond the bounds of this article. So, too, is the question of how likely your particular investment is to take a dive. In short, all markets are subject to external forces and shocks. Political, economic, geographic, domestic, international and many other factors play a role in creating an environment that pushes the different types of investments up or down. And let's not forget psychology – if people panic and despair, an intrinsically sound investment can plummet. Conversely, if people start believing that the good times will last forever, a truly lousy investment can perform miracles - for a while. The implication of all this is to avoid low-diversification investments that can go down more than you are willing and able to accept. That way, you will not be in for nasty surprises.
The Bottom Line
What you can lose on a particular investment, namely its volatility, is fundamental to whether it is right for your circumstances and risk profile. To understand what you may be getting into, you need to know in simple percentage terms what you stand to gain or lose. Only on this basis can you build up a portfolio that is genuinely suitable. If the maximum you could lose makes your blood run cold, reduce your holding to a comfortable level or invest in something else altogether.