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An alternative investment is a financial asset that does not fall into one of the conventional investment categories. Conventional categories include stocks, bonds, and cash. Most alternative investment assets are held by institutional investors or accredited, high-net-worth individuals because of their complex nature, lack of regulation, and degree of risk. Alternative investments include private equity or venture capital, hedge funds, managed futures, art and antiques, commodities, and derivatives contracts. Real estate is also often classified as an alternative investment.
Alternative investments typically have a low correlation with those of standard asset classes. This low correlation means they often move counter—or the opposite—to the stock and bond markets. This feature makes them a suitable tool for portfolio diversification. Investments in hard assets, such as gold, oil, and real property, also provide an effective hedge against inflation, which hurts the purchasing power of paper money.
Because of this, many large institutional funds such as pension funds and private endowments often allocate a small portion of their portfolios—typically less than 10%—to alternative investments such as hedge funds.
The non-accredited retail investor also has access to alternative investments. Alternative mutual funds and exchange-traded funds—aka alt funds or liquid alts—are now available. These alt funds provide ample opportunity to invest in alternative asset categories, previously difficult and costly for the average individual to access. Because they are publicly traded, alt funds are SEC-registered and -regulated, specifically by the Investment Company Act of 1940.3.