Types of Alternative Investments | Complete Beginner’s Guide

“Diversify! Diversify! Diversify!” is the mantra on every investment advisor’s lips, and we could not agree more on this. However, diversification has varied connotations across classes of investors.  While regular investors are happy to be diversified through plain equities, bonds, and mutual funds, the High Net Worth individuals and institutions want diversification with a tiara of exclusivity. This is where Alternative Investments find their place.

We all love options, don’t we?  With the emergence of Alternative assets, the investment arena is brimming with options like never before.  Diversification and higher returns define the essence of alternative investments, and one needs to put in thorough due diligence before parking funds in them.


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We discuss the following in this article –

Alternative Investments Definition

Simply defined, Alternative investments are those asset classesAsset ClassesAssets are classified into various classes based on their type, purpose, or the basis of return or markets. Fixed assets, equity (equity investments, equity-linked savings schemes), real estate, commodities (gold, silver, bronze), cash and cash equivalents, derivatives (equity, bonds, debt), and alternative investments such as hedge funds and bitcoins are examples.read more that vary from traditional investments on grounds on complexity, liquidity, regulatory mechanism, and mode of fund management. But that is too theoretical, isn’t it? Different types of alternative investments include Private Equity, Hedge FundsHedge FundsA hedge fund is an aggressively invested portfolio made through pooling of various investors and institutional investor’s fund. It supports various assets providing high returns in exchange for higher risk through multiple risk management and hedging techniques.read more, Venture Capital, Real Estate/ Commodities, and Tangibles like Wine/ Art/Stamps.

Let us delve a little further and understand what actually differentiates Alternative investments from the traditional ones.

Alternative Investments vs. Traditional Investments


Source: World Economic Forum

Illiquidity in nature

As these are assets with a niche investor base, the trading in these are infrequent as compared to the traditional investments.  Due to the low volume of trading and the absence of a public market, these investments cannot be sold off quickly. There is also a sheer lack of buyers who want to readily purchase the investments. This is in total contrast with the publicly traded stocks, mutual funds, and fixed securities, which are constantly being bought and sold due to a much wider investor base.

(NOTE:  certain indices and ETFs which reflect the performance of the alternative assets are comparatively more liquid; however, this article only focuses on real assets and not indices. Hence, these are outside the scope of the article)

Less transparency and lower regulations:

While the investments are heavily regulated under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, they are not directly covered by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA).  While few of the Anti-fraud norms are applicable to alternative investments, there is no single agency that has defined regulatory norms for the Alternative space and monitors the activities of the fund managers.

Limited performance indicators:

Due to the lower volume of trading, the data, facts, and figures pertaining to alternative Investments are difficult to obtain. While there are many sources floating on the internet, determining their credibility is a task.  Investors of traditional investments have wider access to data, news, and research, which helps him make decisions and formulate strategies, but for alternative investments, limited access to information and historical trends increases dependency on fund managers.

Close-ended funds

Alternative investments are mainly close-ended funds with an investment horizon of 10-15 years. Hedge Funds are the only exception of this and similar to traditional investments in this respect. In alternative investments, funds are not automatically reinvestedReinvestedReinvestment is the process of investing the returns received from investment in dividends, interests, or cash rewards to purchase additional shares and reinvesting the gains. Investors do not opt for cash benefits as they are reinvesting their profits in their portfolio.read more but returned back to the investors after the time frame, who can then chose to invest it somewhere else.

Why Alternative Investments are Preferred?

Now the question arises, if these are investments with an air of ambiguity, why would high net worth investors want to have them in their portfolios, and how would it benefit them?

Alternative investments, as a domain, are still evolving and maturing. While it is mainly considered to be a prerogative of the High Net Worth investors, there are also retail investors who are showing keen interest in them. After the financial crisisFinancial CrisisThe term "financial crisis" refers to a situation in which the market's key financial assets experience a sharp decline in market value over a relatively short period of time, or when leading businesses are unable to pay their enormous debt, or when financing institutions face a liquidity crunch and are unable to return money to depositors, all of which cause panic in the capital markets and among investors.read more in 2008, where even the best of the diversified portfolios were swayed by extreme volatility, alternative investments proved their worth.

The major reasons why they score brownie points over traditional investments are:

A low co-relation with markets:

Low correlations to traditional asset classes like equity markets and fixed income markets act as a major advantage for alternative investments. These asset classes usually have a co-relation between -1 to 0, which makes them less susceptible to systematic riskSystematic RiskSystematic Risk is defined as the risk that is inherent to the entire market or the whole market segment as it affects the economy as a whole and cannot be diversified away and thus is also known as an “undiversifiable risk” or “market risk” or even “volatility risk”.read more or market-oriented risk elements.  However, a catch in this scene is the upside is also capped due to a low correlation with the market. Also, see CAPM Beta.

A strong tool for diversification:

Alternative investments, by virtue of their lower co-relation co-efficient, offer better diversification benefits with enhanced returns. These assets perfectly complement the traditional investments, and when a stock or bond underperforms, a hedge fund or private equity firm can cushion the extent of losses over the long term. One can add or replace alternative assets based on individual investment goals and risk appetiteRisk AppetiteRisk appetite refers to the amount, rate, or percentage of risk that an individual or organization (as determined by the Board of Directors or management) is willing to accept in exchange for its plan, objectives, and innovation.read more.

Active management:

As compared to the passive indexed investment, alternative investment calls for active management of funds. The complex nature of the assets, volatility, and elevated risk level of these investments required constant monitoring and recalibration of investment strategies as needed. Moreover, the wealthy investors for whom high management fees are not a concern would definitely want to reap the benefits of high-end expertise.

There various types of Alternative investments. Few are well-structured, while few follow the distinctiveness of the investors. Let us try to understand the structure and underlying philosophies behind these asset types.

Alternative Investments Types

Private Equity

Not all equities are listed on stock exchangesListed On Stock ExchangesStock exchange refers to a market that facilitates the buying and selling of listed securities such as public company stocks, exchange-traded funds, debt instruments, options, etc., as per the standard regulations and guidelines—for instance, NYSE and NASDAQ.read more.  Private Equity refers to funds that institutional investorsInstitutional InvestorsInstitutional investors are entities that pool money from a variety of investors and individuals to create a large sum that is then handed to investment managers who invest it in a variety of assets, shares, and securities. Banks, NBFCs, mutual funds, pension funds, and hedge funds are all examples.read more or high net worth investors directly place in private companies or in the process of the buyout of public companies. Usually, these private companies then utilize the capital for their inorganic and organic growth. It can be for expanding their footprint, increasing marketing operations, technological advancement, or making strategic acquisitions.

Mostly the investors lack the expertise to select companies that suits their investment goals; thus, they prefer investing through Private Equity Firms rather than the direct mode.  These firms raise funds from high net worth investors, endowments, insurance companies, pension funds, etc.

A quick look at Private Equity Fund structure:

Limited PartnerGeneral PartnerCompensation Structure
They are the institutional or high net worth individuals who invest in these funds.The General Partners are the ones responsible for managing the investments in the fund.The General Partners receive management fees as well as a share of profits on the investment. This is known as Carried InterestCarried InterestCarried interest, often known as "carry," is the portion of profit earned by a private equity firm or fund manager upon the fund's exit from an investment. This is the most important part of the Fund manager's total remuneration.read more and ranges between 8% to 30%

The private equity industry was out of regulatory supervision since its birth in the 1940s; however, after the 2008 financial crisis, it falls under the purview of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. In recent times, there is an increased call for transparency, and the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has started collecting data on private equity firms.

When it comes to judging the performance of Private Equity, measures like IRR (Internal Rate of ReturnInternal Rate Of ReturnInternal rate of return (IRR) is the discount rate that sets the net present value of all future cash flow from a project to zero. It compares and selects the best project, wherein a project with an IRR over and above the minimum acceptable return (hurdle rate) is selected.read more) were widely used, but it has certain limitations. IRR did not address the reinvestment element for interim cash flowsCash FlowsCash Flow is the amount of cash or cash equivalent generated & consumed by a Company over a given period. It proves to be a prerequisite for analyzing the business’s strength, profitability, & scope for betterment. read more or negative flows. Thus, evolved the Modified IRR. A more practical and holistic tool than the traditional IRR, the modified IRR, or MIRR is the main measure to quantify the Private Equity performance these days. Also, checkout NPV vs. IRR.

Annual Global Private Capital* Fundraising, 1995 – 2015


*‘Private Capital’ will refer to the broader spectrum of private closed-end fundsClosed-end FundsA closed-end fund refers to a professionally managed fund whereby an investment company issues the initial public offering to raise capital. Later, these stocks are exchanged in the open market among the shareholders like other shares. Such investments provide better returns than the open-end funds.read more, including private equity, private debt, private real estate, infrastructure, and natural resources

Source: docs.preqin.com

Hedge Funds

Mutual Funds are quite popular, but Hedge Funds, its distant cousin, still belongs to a lesser-known territory. This is an alternative investment vehicle, which only caters to investors with ultra-deep pockets. As per US laws, hedge funds should cater only to “accredited” investors. This implies that they must possess a net worth of more than $1 million and also earn a minimum annual income. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), Hedge funds have more than $3 trillion assets under management (AUM), which represents 40% of total alternative investments.


So why are they called Hedge Funds in the first place?

These funds derived this name due to their core idea to generate a consistent return and preserve capital, instead of focusing on the magnitude of returns.

With minimal co-relation to equity marketsEquity MarketsAn equity market is a platform that enables the companies to issue their securities to the investors; it also facilitates the further exchange of these stocks between the buyers and sellers. It comprises various stock exchanges like New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).read more, most hedge funds have been able to diversify portfolio risks and reduce volatility.

Hedge funds are also the pool of underlying assets, but they differ from Mutual FundsMutual FundsA mutual fund is a professionally managed investment product in which a pool of money from a group of investors is invested across assets such as equities, bonds, etcread more on a number of grounds. They are not regulated as Mutual Funds and hence have the leeway to invest in a broader range of securities. Hedge funds are best known for investments in risky assets and derivatives. When it comes to investment techniques, hedge funds prefer to take a more high-end complex approach calibrated to varying levels of risk and return. Many of them also resort to “Leveraged” investment, which means using borrowed money for investment.

One factor that distinguishes Hedge Funds from other alternative investments is its liquidity quotient. These funds can take as low as a few minutes for sell-off due to increased exposure to liquid securities.

Venture capital

We live in the age of entrepreneurship. New ideas and technological advancements have led to the proliferation of startup ventures across the globe. But ideas aren’t enough for a firm to survive. To sustain, a firm needs capital. Venture Capital is an alternative asset class that invests equity capital in private startups and shows exceptional potential for growth.

Doesn’t it sound familiar to Private Equity? No, it doesn’t. Private Equity invests equity capital into mature companies, while Venture CapitalVenture CapitalVenture capital (VC) refers to a type of long-term finance extended to startups with high-growth potential to help them succeed exponentially. read more is mainly for startups.

Venture Capital usually invests at seed and early-stage businesses while some invest at the expansion stage. The investment horizon is typically between 3-7 years, and venture capitalists expect returns to the tune of >8x-10x the invested capital. This high rate of return is a natural outcome owing to the risk quotient associated with the investment. While some ideas might appear lackluster in the inception stage, who knows, they may turn out to be the next Facebook or Apple? Investors who have the caliber to shoulder this level of risk and believe in the underlying potential of the idea are the ideal venture capitalists.

Also, check out Private Equity vs. Venture Capital.

With the growth in entrepreneurship, this is the time for Venture Capital to thrive. From 2013 to 2015, the deals have grown 54% YoY. Geographically, Venture Capital investments are concentrated mostly in the US, followed by Europe and China.

Alternative Investments - VC
Alternative Investments - VC

Source: Ernst & Young Global Venture Capital Trends 2015

Investing in new ventures involves a high degree of risk peppered with uncertainty. There are high possibilities of negative outcomes, and this justifies the risk quotient. Each stage of Venture Capital investment presents a new risk; however, the returns generated are directly proportional to the quantum of risk, and that’s what lures the Venture Capitalists.

The risk/ Return element for Venture Capital according to the stage of investment.


Research by J.C. Ruhnka and J.E. Young

According to research by J.C. Ruhnka and J.E. Young, the risk is highest at the seed stage (66%) and reduces till the pre-IPO stage (20%).

Returns at the seed stage are as high as 73%, and declines as the risk phases out till the pre-IPOPre-IPOA pre-IPO is a placement method whereby the company offers its stocks in large blocks to the private investors at a discounted price before these shares are listed on the stock exchange for public trading. read more stage.

Real assets

Not all investments are towards businesses or pool of funds. Some of them are towards real assetsReal AssetsReal Assets are tangible assets that have an inherent value due to their physical attributes. These assets include metals, commodities, land, and factory, building, and infrastructure assets. read more like precious metals or natural resources. Investing money in gold, silver, or other precious metal has been there since times immemorial. They have always been known to be the best hedge against market movements and currency fluctuations due to their inverse relationship with the US Dollar. Investors can invest in gold through gold coins, bullions, or indirectly through sector traded funds or exchange-traded fundsExchange-traded FundsAn exchange-traded fund (ETF) is a security that contains many types of securities such as bonds, stocks, commodities, and so on, and that trades on the exchange like a stock, with the price fluctuating many times throughout the day when the exchange-traded fund is bought and sold on the exchange.read more.

img6Source: bullionvault 2015

Real estate is also one of the avenues that have caught the fancy of investors for a long. Investing in plots, houses, and reaping rental yields or commercial assets are some of the direct ways of investing in real estate. Indirect ways through which retail investors can park their money in real estate are through Real estate investment trusts (REITs). Once again, the low co-relationship between equity markets and real estate has branded real estate as an ideal hedge against inflation.

Collectibles like wine, art, stamps, or vintage cars

For those who thought stamps, artwork, and vintage wine are just prestigious souvenirs, think again! Hidden in these connoisseurs are astute investors who know the real value of these collectibles.

Classic cars like the 1950 Ferrari 166 Inter Vignale Coupe and Ferrari 250 GTO Berlinetta tops the list, while investment-grade wines like Bordeaux come a close second. Coins, art, and stamp are some of the other luxury investments that also preferred options.


Source: Knight Frank

According to Knight Frank, the Knight Frank Luxury Investment Index (KFLII) rose by 7% in 2015 as compared to a 5% drop in the value of the FTSE 100 equities index and a mere 1% rise for the high-end housing market in London. However, the value for collectibles is unpredictable and can be impacted by forces of supply and demand, prevailing economic conditions, the willingness of buyers, and the physical state of the prestigious collection.


An alternative investment is a universe in itself. With diversification as its underlying element, it is fast gaining popularity retail investorsRetail InvestorsA retail investor is a non-professional individual investor who tends to invest a small sum in the equities, bonds, mutual funds, exchange-traded funds, and other baskets of securities. They often take the services of online or traditional brokerage firms or advisors for investment decision-making.read more as well. It is no more the arena of wealthy investors only. While this asset class is sure to provide diversification, it does require expertise in selection and sound judgment-backed investment.  Without thorough research or study of market trends, investing in them can be a risky bet.

Reader Interactions


  1. Preston fernandes says

    Thanks for sharing this informative blog. Sir I have one small question, I would be glad if you can answer this. Sir is it good to choose Investment banking as a career, I mean how does an investment bankers life be, is it good or bad. All through the point I just want to know how is the life of Investment banker?

    • Dheeraj Vaidya says

      Hi Preston, tough question. Is investment banking good or bad? It is good for those who love finance and don’t have problems with spending 14-18 hours a day in office. Those who enter this entry because they think that it is “yo”, then they quit this industry very soon.

  2. Nolan kowells says

    Thanks for the information. I am interested in learning investment banking. I have gone through many websites but didn’t find anything useful. Do have any study material through which I can prefer to learn investment banking. Please share me any detail if you have regarding this.

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