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WHAT IS THE 'Risk-Return Tradeoff'

The risk-return tradeoff states that the potential return rises with an increase in risk. Using this principle, individuals associate low levels of uncertainty with low potential returns, and high levels of uncertainty or risk with high potential returns. According to the risk-return tradeoff, invested money can render higher profits only if the investor will accept a higher possibility of losses.

BREAKING DOWN 'Risk-Return Tradeoff'

The risk-return tradeoff is the trading principle that links high risk with high reward. The appropriate risk-return tradeoff depends on a variety of factors including an investor’s risk tolerance, the investor’s years to retirement and the potential to replace lost funds. Time also plays an essential role in determining a portfolio with the appropriate levels of risk and reward. For example, if an investor has the ability to invest in equities over the long term, that provides the investor with the potential to recover from the risks of bear markets and participate in bull markets, while if an investor can only invest in a short time frame, the same equities have a higher risk proposition.

Investors use the risk-return tradeoff as one of the essential components of each investment decision, as well as to assess their portfolios as a whole. At the portfolio level, the risk-return tradeoff can include assessments of the concentration or the diversity of holdings and whether the mix presents too much risk or a lower-than-desired potential for returns.

Measuring Singular Risk in Context and Portfolio Risk Level

When an investor considers high-risk-high-return investments, the investor can apply the risk-return tradeoff to the vehicle on a singular basis as well as within the context of the portfolio as a whole. Examples of high-risk-high return investments include options, penny stocks and leveraged exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Generally speaking, a diversified portfolio reduces the risks presented by individual investment positions. For example, a penny stock position may have a high risk on a singular basis, but if it is the only position of its kind in a larger portfolio, the risk incurred by holding the stock is minimal.

That said, the risk-return tradeoff also exists at the portfolio level. For example, a portfolio composed of all equities presents both higher risk and higher potential returns. Within an all-equity portfolio, risk and reward can be increased by concentrating investments in specific sectors or by taking on single positions that represent a large percentage of holdings. For investors, assessing the cumulative risk-return tradeoff of all positions can provide insight on whether a portfolio assumes enough risk to achieve long-term return objectives or if the risk levels are too high with the existing mix of holdings.

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