Risk/Reward Ratio: What It Is, How Stock Investors Use It (2024)

What Is the Risk/Reward Ratio?

The risk/reward ratio—also known as the risk/return 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. A lower risk/return ratio is often preferable as it signals less risk for an equivalent potential gain.

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).

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.
  • In general, the greater the risk, the greater the expected return demanded.
  • 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.

Note that the risk/return ratio can be computed as one's personal risk tolerance on an investment, or as the objective calculation of an investment's risk/return profile. In the latter case, expected return is often used in the denominator and potential loss in the numerator. Expected return can be computed in several ways, including projecting historical returns into the future, estimating the weighted probabilities of future outcomes, or using a model like the capital asset pricing model (CAPM).

To estimate the potential loss, investors may use a variety of methods, such as analyzing historical price data with technical analysis, using the historical standard deviation of price action, assessing company financial statements with fundamental analysis, and models like value-at-risk (VaR). These methods can help investors identify factors that could impact the investment's value and estimate the potential downside.

Estimating the expected return and potential loss is not an exact science, and the actual amount of risk and return may differ from your estimates. Investors should also consider their own risk tolerance when evaluating the potential risk of an investment, as the amount of risk they are willing to take on can vary depending on their personal circ*mstances and investment goals.

What Does theRisk/Reward RatioTell 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.

When the risk/return ratio is abnormally low, it could suggest that the potential gain is disproportionately large relative to the potential risk, which may indicate that the investment is riskier than it might appear. This is why some investors may approach investments with very low risk/return ratios with caution, as a low ratio alone does not guarantee a good investment.

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 investor 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.

How Do You Calculate the Risk/Return Ratio?

To calculate the risk/return ratio (also known as the risk-reward ratio), you need to divide the amount you stand to lose if your investment does not perform as expected (the risk) by the amount you stand to gain if it does (the reward).

The formula for the risk/return ratio is:

Risk/Return Ratio = Potential Loss / Potential Gain

Why Is the Risk/Return Ratio Important?

The risk/return ratio helps investors assess whether a potential investment is worth making. A lower ratio means that the potential reward is greater than the potential risk, while a high ratio means the opposite. By understanding the risk/return ratio, investors can make more informed decisions about their investments and manage their risk more effectively.

Can the Risk/Return Ratio of an Investment Change Over Time?

Yes, the risk/return ratio can change over time as the investment's price moves its potential risk changes. For example, if a stock's price goes up, the potential reward may become less than when it was initially purchased, while the potential risk may have also increased.

It's important to regularly monitor the risk/return ratio of your investments and adjust your portfolio accordingly to ensure that your investments align with your goals and risk tolerance.

The Bottom Line

The risk-reward ratio is a measure of potential profit to potential loss for a given investment or project. A lower risk-reward ratio is generally preferable because it offers the potential for a greater return on investment without undue risk-taking. A ratio that is too high indicates that an investment could be overly risky. However, a ratio that is too low should be met with suspicion. Investors should consider their risk tolerance and investment goals when determining the appropriate ratio for their portfolio. Diversifying investments, the use of protective put options, and using stop-loss orders can help optimize your risk-return profile.

Correction—March 21, 2024: This article has been corrected to state that a lower ratio means the potential reward is greater than the potential risk, and a high ratio means the opposite.

Risk/Reward Ratio: What It Is, How Stock Investors Use It (2024)
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