Low-Risk vs. High-Risk Investments: What's the Difference?

Low-Risk vs. High-Risk Investments: An Overview

Risk is absolutely fundamental to investing; no discussion of returns or performance is meaningful without at least some mention of the risk involved. The trouble for new investors, though, is figuring out just where risk really lies and what the differences are between low risk and high risk.

Given how fundamental risk is to investments, many new investors assume that it is a well-defined and quantifiable idea. Unfortunately, it is not. Bizarre as it may sound, there is still no real agreement on what “risk” means or how it should be measured.

Academics have often tried to use volatility as a proxy for risk. To a certain extent, this makes perfect sense. Volatility is a measure of how much a given number can vary over time. The wider the range of possibilities, the more likely some of those possibilities will be bad. Better yet, volatility is relatively easy to measure.

Unfortunately, volatility is flawed as a measure of risk. While it is true that a more volatile stock or bond exposes the owner to a wider range of possible outcomes, it does not necessarily affect the likelihood of those outcomes. In many respects, volatility is more like the turbulence a passenger experiences on an airplane—unpleasant, perhaps, but not really bearing much of a relationship to the likelihood of a crash.

A better way to think of risk is as the possibility or probability of an asset experiencing a permanent loss of value or below-expectation performance. If an investor buys an asset expecting a 10% return, the likelihood that the return will be below 10% is the risk of that investment. What this also means is that underperformance relative to an index is not necessarily risk. If an investor buys an asset with the expectation that it will return 7% and it returns 8%, the fact that the S&P 500 returned 10% is largely irrelevant.

Key Takeaways

  • There are no perfect definitions or measurements of risk.
  • Inexperienced investors would do well to think of risk in terms of the odds that a given investment (or portfolio of investments) will fail to achieve the expected return and the magnitude by which it could miss that target.
  • By better understanding what risk is and where it can come from, investors can work to build portfolios that not only have a lower probability of loss but a lower maximum potential loss as well.

High-Risk Investment

A high-risk investment is one for which there is either a large percentage chance of loss of capital or under-performance—or a relatively high chance of a devastating loss. The first of these is intuitive, if subjective: If you were told there’s a 50/50 chance that your investment will earn your expected return, you may find that quite risky. If you were told that there is a 95% percent chance that the investment will not earn your expected return, almost everybody will agree that that is risky.

The second half, though, is the one that many investors neglect to consider. To illustrate it, take for example car and airplane crashes. A 2019 National Safety Council analysis told us that a person’s lifetime odds of dying from any unintentional cause have risen to one in 25—up from odds of one in 30 in 2004. However, the odds of dying in a car crash are only one in 107, while the odds of dying after being struck by lightning are minuscule: one in 138,849.

What this means for investors is that they must consider both the likelihood and the magnitude of bad outcomes.

Low-Risk Investment

By nature, with low-risk investing, there is less at stake—either in terms of the amount of invested or the significance of the investment to the portfolio. There is also less to gain—either in terms of the potential return or the potential benefit bigger term.

Low-risk investing not only means protecting against the chance of any loss, but it also means making sure that none of the potential losses will be devastating.

If investors accept the notion that investment risk is defined by a loss of capital and/or under-performance relative to expectations, it makes defining low-risk and high-risk investments substantially easier.


Let us consider a few examples to further illustrate the difference between high-risk and low-risk investments.

Biotechnology stocks are notoriously risky. The vast majority of new experimental cures will fail, and, not surprisingly, most biotech stocks will also eventually fail. Thus, there is both a high percentage chance of underperformance (most will fail) and a large amount of potential underperformance.

In comparison, a United States Treasury bond offers a very different risk profile. There is almost no chance that an investor holding a Treasury bond will fail to receive the stated interest and principal payments. Even if there were delays in payment (extremely rare in the history of the United States), investors would likely recoup a large portion of the investment.

Investors need to look at risk from a number of angles, considering factors such as diversification, time horizon, expected returns, and short- and long-term goals. 

Special Considerations

It is also important to consider the effect that diversification can have on the risk of an investment portfolio. Generally speaking, the dividend-paying stocks of major Fortune 100 corporations are quite safe, and investors can be expected to earn mid-to-high single-digit returns over the course of many years.

That said, there is always a risk that an individual company will fail. Companies such as Eastman Kodak and Woolworths are famous examples of one-time success stories that eventually went under. Moreover, market volatility is always possible.

If an investor holds all of their money in one stock, the odds of a bad event happening may still be relatively low, but the potential severity is quite high. Hold a portfolio of 10 such stocks, though, and not only does the risk of portfolio underperformance decline, the magnitude of the potential overall portfolio also declines.

Investors need to be willing to look at risk in comprehensive and flexible ways. For instance, diversification is an important part of risk. Holding a portfolio of investments that all have low risk—but all have the same risk—can be quite dangerous. For example, while the odds of an individual plane crashing is very rare, many large airlines still have (or will) experience a crash. Holding a portfolio of low-risk Treasury bonds may seem like very low-risk investing, but they all share the same risks; the occurrence of a very low-probability event (such as a U.S. government default) would be devastating.

Investors also have to include factors such as time horizon, expected returns, and knowledge when thinking about risk. On the whole, the longer an investor can wait, the more likely that investor is to achieve the expected returns. There is certainly some correlation between risk and return and investors expecting huge returns need to accept a much larger risk of underperformance. Knowledge is also important—not only in identifying those investments most likely to achieve their expected return (or better) but also incorrectly identifying the likelihood and magnitude of what can go wrong.

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  1. National Safety Council. "For the First Time, We’re More Likely to Die From Accidental Opioid Overdose Than Motor Vehicle Crash."

  2. National Safety Council. "Odds of Dying."

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