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Investment Asset Classes Explained: What’s What, and Their Pros and Cons

fixed income investment

The term ‘investment asset classes’ may sound foreign to the uninitiated, but it simply refers to a group of investment options that share some traits. This could be in terms of how they are structured, or how they behave in the marketplace.

Thus, different investment asset classes come with different levels of risk and potential for returns. When choosing where to invest, it’s important to understand the advantages and shortcomings of various assets so that you can make a decision most aligned with your objective.

Here’s a handy guide to understanding some of the most common types of asset classes that you may encounter en route to building your own investment portfolio.

1. Money market

money market fund

This can be loosely considered to be similar to holding onto cash, whether in the form of literal cash in your wallets, or in accounts like a savings account or accessible funds like a fixed deposit.

Money market instruments are short-term investments that have maturities that range between a day to a year, , although they tend to be three months or less.

Examples of money market instruments:

Cash savings, fixed deposits, money market funds, treasury bills

Characteristics

Pros:

  • High liquidity
  • Generally low risk and stable

Cons:

  • Low interest
  • Not a good hedge against inflation
  • Generally offers poorer returns compared to other asset classes

2. Fixed income

A fixed income fund is one that invests primarily in bonds or other debt securities. It generally pays investors returns on a fixed schedule, typically in the form of fixed interest or dividend payments. The amount of these payments can vary, and investors are typically repaid the principal sum that they had invested, on top of the returns received over time.

This makes fixed income funds preferred as an investment vehicle that generates regular income, while preserving capital.

Examples of fixed income instruments: 

Corporate bonds, retails bonds, bond funds

Characteristics

Pros:

  • Low to medium-risk

  • Provides regular payouts as a form of income stream

Cons:

  • Not always a good hedge against inflation if returns are less than inflation rate

  • Prices of a fund decline with rising interest rates

3. Equities

Equity represents the amount of money that would be returned to a company’s shareholders if all its assets were liquidated and all of the company’s debt is paid off.

We can think of equity as a form of ownership in any asset after subtracting all debts associated with that asset.

For instance, when you buy a company’s stock, it represents some form of ownership in that company. If the company makes a profit, you may get a dividend as a shareholder. Alternatively, if the share price increases, it would also yield you some returns.

Examples of equities: 

Stocks, equity funds, index funds

Characteristics

Pros:

  • Potentially for higher returns, especially when compared to cash and fixed income assets

Cons:

  • Volatile

  • Higher risk of losing the capital invested

  • Calls for greater expertise

4. Commodities

A commodity is a basic raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold.

For investors, commodities can be an important way to diversify their portfolio beyond traditional securities, since the prices of commodities tend to move in opposition to stocks. Given that the prices of commodities tend to rise when there is accelerating inflation, this asset class can also be a form of protection against inflation.

Examples of commodities: 

Commodities that are traded are typically sorted into four broad categories: metal, energy, livestock and meat, and agriculture.

Gold, silver, grains, beef, oil, and natural gas are some examples of these commodities.

Characteristics

Pros:

  • Low or negative correlation with returns to asset classes like equities

Cons:

  • Riskier as prices are impacted by uncertainties, and hence are hard to predict

5. Real estate

Investing in real estate could mean doing so in residential or commercial properties, or in land. It could even be in overseas real estate. It offers a good form of diversification for your investment portfolio. When the value of the property appreciates, it yields financial returns for the investor. Alternatively, returns could come in the form of rental income.

Real estate investment could also be in the form of Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). REITs provide investors an entry into non-residential investments such as malls or office buildings that are generally not accessible to individual investors. REITs are highly liquid because they are exchange-traded, as compared to a property which requires more time and costs to sell.

Examples of real estate instruments: 

Residential, commercial and industrial properties, REITs

Characteristics

Pros:

  • Good inflation hedge

  • Can provides regular income stream

Cons:

  • Illiquid (Properties)

  • High upfront capital required (Properties)

  • Long-term investment commitment required
  • Highly sensitive to interest rate fluctuations (REITs)

Summing it all up…

For each of these investment classes, there are various instruments that investors can use to participate. An investor might invest in equities by buying the actual shares, or through buying a derivative such as Contract for Difference (CFDs). Each instrument under different asset classes comes with different risks and should be considered in context.

No single asset class is perfect, and making your choice in building a sound investment strategy depends largely on your personal preferences and needs, such as whether a longer or shorter term strategy suits you better. After you’ve gotten started, don’t forget to rebalance your investment portfolio too!

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