What Is the Risk/Reward Ratio?

The risk/reward ratio marks the prospective reward an investor can earn for every dollar they risk on an investment. Many investors use risk/reward ratios to compare the expected returns of an investment with the amount of risk they must undertake to earn these returns. Consider the following example: an investment with a risk-reward ratio of 1:7 suggests that an investor is willing to risk $1, for the prospect of earning $7. Alternatively, a risk/reward ratio of 1:3 signals that an investor should expect to invest $1, for the prospect of earning $3 on their investment.

Traders often use this approach to plan which trades to take, and the ratio is calculated by dividing the amount a trader stands to lose if the price of an asset moves in an unexpected direction (the risk) by the amount of profit the trader expects to have made when the position is closed (the reward).

1:32

Risk/Reward Ratio

Key Takeaways

  • The risk/reward ratio is used by traders and investors to manage their capital and risk of loss.
  • The ratio helps assess the expected return and risk of a given trade.
  • An appropriate risk reward ratio tends to be anything greater than 1:3.

How the Risk/Reward Ratio Works

In many cases, market strategists find the ideal risk/reward ratio for their investments to be approximately 1:3, or three units of expected return for every one unit of additional risk. Investors can manage risk/reward more directly through the use of stop-loss orders and derivatives such as put options.

The risk/reward ratio is often used as a measure when trading individual stocks. The optimal risk/reward ratio differs widely among various trading strategies. Some trial-and-error methods are usually required to determine which ratio is best for a given trading strategy, and many investors have a pre-specified risk/reward ratio for their investments.

What Does the Risk/Reward Ratio Tell You?

The risk/reward ratio helps investors manage their risk of losing money on trades. Even if a trader has some profitable trades, they will lose money over time if their win rate is below 50%. The risk/reward ratio measures the difference between a trade entry point to a stop-loss and a sell or take-profit order. Comparing these two provides the ratio of profit to loss, or reward to risk.

Investors often use stop-loss orders when trading individual stocks to help minimize losses and directly manage their investments with a risk/reward focus. A stop-loss order is a trading trigger placed on a stock that automates the selling of the stock from a portfolio if the stock reaches a specified low. Investors can automatically set stop-loss orders through brokerage accounts and typically do not require exorbitant additional trading costs.

Example of the Risk/Reward Ratio in Use

Consider this example: A trader purchases 100 shares of XYZ Company at $20 and places a stop-loss order at $15 to ensure that losses will not exceed $500. Also, assume that this trader believes that the price of XYZ will reach $30 in the next few months. In this case, the trader is willing to risk $5 per share to make an expected return of $10 per share after closing the position. Since the trader stands to make double the amount that they have risked, they would be said to have a 1:2 risk/reward ratio on that particular trade. Derivatives contracts such as put contracts, which give their owners the right to sell the underlying asset at a specified price, can be used to similar effect.

If an investor prefers to seek a 1:5 risk/reward ratio for a specified investment (five units of expected return for each additional unit of risk), then they can modify the stop-loss order and thus adjust the risk/reward ratio. But it is important to understand that by doing so the investors has changed the probability of success in their trade.

In the trading example noted above, suppose an investor set a stop-loss order at $18, instead of $15, and they continued to target a $30 profit-taking exit. By doing so they would certainly reduce the size of the potential loss (assuming no change to the number of shares), but they will have increased the likelihood that the price action will trigger their stop loss order. That's because the stop order is proportionally much closer to the entry than the target price is. So although the investor may stand to make a proportionally larger gain (compared to the potential loss), they have a lower probability of receiving this outcome.