What is 'Risk-On Risk-Off'

Risk-on risk-off is an investment setting in which price behavior responds to and is driven by changes in investor risk tolerance. Risk-on risk-off refers to changes in investment activity in response to global economic patterns. During periods when risk is perceived as low, risk-on risk-off theory states that investors tend to engage in higher-risk investments; when risk is perceived as high, investors have the tendency to gravitate toward lower-risk investments.

BREAKING DOWN 'Risk-On Risk-Off'

Investors' appetites for risk rise and fall over time. At times, investors are more likely to invest in higher-risk instruments than during other periods, such as during the 2009 recovery. The 2008 financial crisis was considered a risk-off year, when investors attempted to reduce risk by selling existing risky positions and moving money to either cash positions or low/no-risk positions, such as U.S. Treasury bonds.

Not all asset classes carry the same risk. Investors tend to change asset classes depending on the perceived risk in the markets. For instance, stocks are generally seen as riskier assets than bonds. Therefore, during periods of stocks outperforming bonds, this is said to be a risk-on environment. When stocks are selling off and investors run for shelter in bonds or gold, the environment is said to be risk-off.

Earnings, Economic Reports and Central Bank Statements Can Influence Risk Sentiment

While asset prices ultimately detail the risk sentiment of the market, investors can often find signs of changing sentiment through corporate earnings, macroeconomic data, global central bank action and statements, and other factors.

Risk-on environments are often carried by a combination of expanding corporate earnings, optimistic economic outlook, accommodative central bank policies and speculation. As investors feel the market is being supported by strong influential fundamentals, they perceive less risk about the market and its outlook.

Conversely, risk-off environments can be caused by widespread corporate earnings downgrades, contracting or slowing economic data, uncertain central bank policy, a rush to safe investments, and other factors.

Investors Give Up Returns For Safety During Risk-Off and Give Up Safety For Returns During Risk-On

As the perceived risk rises in the markets, investors jump risk assets and pile into high-grade bonds, U.S. Treasury bonds, gold, cash and other safe havens. While returns on these assets are not expected to be excessive, they provide downside protection to portfolios during times of distress.

When risks subside in the market, low-return assets and safe havens are dumped for high-yielding bonds, stocks, commodities and other assets that carry elevated risk. As overall market risks stay low, investors are more willing to take on portfolio risk for the chance of higher returns.

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