What Are Alternative Investments? Definition and Types

by Alina Khan

Published On Dec. 20, 2023

In this article

The pursuit of diverse and lucrative opportunities has given rise to alternative investments, a category that extends beyond the traditional domains of stocks and bonds. This diverse array of assets offers investors a spectrum of options, from private equity and hedge funds to real estate and commodities. In this comprehensive guide, we will unravel the definition, types, strategies, and considerations that characterize alternative investments, providing insights into their growing prominence in the financial landscape. This exploration is particularly relevant for investors in India, as the world of finance continues to evolve, offering new avenues for portfolio enhancement and risk management.

What Is an Alternative Investment?

Alternative investments constitute a diverse spectrum of assets that fall outside the conventional categories of stocks, bonds, and cash. This category encompasses tangible assets like real estate, commodities, and precious metals, as well as financial assets such as hedge funds, private equity, and venture capital. The hallmark of alternative investments lies in their departure from traditional markets, providing investors with exposure to unique opportunities and risk-return profiles that may differ significantly from mainstream assets.

Why Are Alternative Investments Important?


Alternative investments play a pivotal role in the realm of diversification, offering investors a means to spread risk across different types of assets. By including alternatives in a portfolio alongside traditional investments, individuals can mitigate vulnerability to market fluctuations and achieve a more balanced risk exposure.

Enhanced Returns:

Certain alternative investments, particularly those in the realm of private equity or venture capital, present the potential for higher returns compared to more conventional assets. This heightened return potential is often attributed to the unique growth trajectories and opportunities characteristic of these alternative avenues.

Inflation Hedge:

Tangible alternative assets like real estate and commodities serve as effective hedges against inflation. As the value of these assets tends to rise with inflation, they can act as a safeguard, preserving wealth in periods of increasing prices.

Low Correlation:

One of the notable advantages of alternative investments is their tendency to exhibit low correlation with traditional markets. This low correlation implies that the performance of alternative assets may not move in tandem with stocks or bonds. This characteristic makes them valuable tools for constructing portfolios that can better withstand market volatility and economic uncertainties.

How do Alternative Investments Work?

The workings of alternative investments are diverse, shaped by the distinct characteristics of each asset class. Here's an overview:

Private Equity:

In private equity, investors collaborate to pool funds, creating a collective investment vehicle. These funds are then deployed to acquire ownership stakes in private companies. The overarching goal is to contribute to the strategic direction of these companies and achieve capital appreciation upon the eventual sale or initial public offering (IPO).

Hedge Funds:

Hedge funds operate as actively managed investment funds employing a range of strategies to generate returns. These strategies can include taking both long and short positions in securities, using derivatives, and employing leverage. The aim is to achieve positive returns regardless of the broader market conditions, often distinguishing hedge funds from traditional investment vehicles.

Real Estate:

Investors can engage with real estate through various channels, including direct ownership, real estate investment trusts (REITs), or crowdfunding platforms. Income is generated through rental payments, while capital appreciation can result from increases in property values over time. The real estate market offers investors both income and potential long-term gains.

Types of Alternative Investments

  1. Real Assets:

Real assets represent tangible investments in physical properties. This category includes real estate, commodities like gold or oil, and investments in natural resources. Real assets often serve as hedges against inflation and can contribute to portfolio diversification.

  1. Private Equity:

Private equity involves investing in privately held companies. Investors, often institutional or high-net-worth individuals, contribute capital to acquire ownership positions in these companies. Private equity investors typically aim to influence management decisions and realize long-term capital appreciation.

  1. Hedge Funds:

Hedge funds are pooled funds that use diverse strategies, ranging from equity and debt investments to derivatives trading. These funds aim to achieve positive returns, often irrespective of traditional market benchmarks. Hedge funds cater to sophisticated investors seeking active and unconventional investment approaches.

  1. Venture Capital:

Venture capital entails investing in startups or early-stage companies with high growth potential. Venture capitalists provide funding in exchange for equity, supporting these companies in their early phases, with the expectation of significant returns upon success.

  1. Private Debt:

Private debt involves lending capital directly to companies or projects. Investors receive fixed-income-like returns, making it an alternative to traditional fixed-income investments. Private debt can offer diversification and potentially higher yields compared to traditional debt instruments.

Alternative Investment Strategies

  1. Long/Short Strategies:

Hedge funds employing long/short strategies engage in both buying (going long) and selling (going short) positions within the market. This approach allows fund managers to profit from both upward and downward market movements, showcasing a flexible and opportunistic investment strategy.

  1. Distressed Debt:

Investing in distressed debt involves acquiring the debt of companies facing financial distress or bankruptcy. Investors in distressed debt anticipate that the company will recover, allowing them to benefit from the eventual improvement in the company's financial condition.

  1. Global Macro:

Global macro hedge funds take a macroeconomic approach to investing. Fund managers analyze global economic trends and events to formulate views on the overall economic environment. Based on these views, they make investment decisions across various asset classes, including stocks, bonds, currencies, and commodities.

Benefits of Alternative Investments

  1. Diversification:

One of the primary advantages of alternative investments is their ability to provide diversification beyond traditional asset classes like stocks and bonds. The inclusion of alternative assets in a portfolio can help reduce overall portfolio risk by spreading investments across different types of assets.

  1. Potential for Higher Returns:

Certain alternative investments, such as private equity and venture capital, offer the potential for higher returns compared to traditional investments. The focus on early-stage companies with high growth potential can lead to significant returns if the companies succeed and experience substantial growth.

  1. Inflation Hedge:

Tangible assets like real estate and commodities have historically served as effective hedges against inflation. As the value of these assets tends to rise with inflation, they can help preserve wealth and maintain purchasing power during periods of rising prices.

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Disadvantages of Alternative Investments

  1. Lack of Liquidity:

Many alternative investments, particularly those in the private markets such as private equity and certain hedge funds, can be illiquid. This lack of liquidity means that investors may face challenges in quickly converting their holdings into cash.

  1. Complexity:

Understanding and evaluating alternative investments can be challenging due to their often complex structures and strategies. The unique characteristics of each asset class, combined with varying risk-return profiles, make it essential for investors to conduct thorough due diligence and, in many cases, seek the guidance of experienced financial professionals.

Risks of Alternative Investments

Market Risks:

Alternative investments, like traditional assets, are susceptible to changes in market conditions, economic factors, and unforeseen events. The performance of these investments can be influenced by broader market trends, impacting returns and introducing an element of risk that investors must carefully consider.

Lack of Transparency:

Some alternative investments may lack the transparency typically associated with more traditional assets. Limited disclosure or complex structures can make it challenging for investors to gain a full understanding of the underlying assets and potential risks. This lack of transparency underscores the importance of due diligence and thorough research before committing to alternative investments.

How to Invest in Alternative Investments

  1. Research:

Thorough research is paramount when considering alternative investments. Understand the specific type of alternative investment you are interested in, including its characteristics, historical performance, and potential risks. Robust research helps investors make informed decisions aligned with their financial goals.

  1. Consult Professionals:

Given the complexity of many alternative investments, seeking advice from financial advisors or experts specializing in this field is advisable. Professionals can provide valuable insights, assess the suitability of specific investments for individual investors, and offer guidance on risk management strategies.

  1. Risk Assessment:

Assessing your risk tolerance and investment goals is crucial when venturing into alternative investments. Different types of alternatives carry varying degrees of risk, and aligning your risk tolerance with the characteristics of the chosen investment can contribute to a more balanced and suitable portfolio.

Alternative Investment Examples

  1. Real Estate:

Investors can participate in real estate through direct ownership of properties or indirectly through Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). Real estate offers the potential for both rental income and capital appreciation.

  1. Private Equity:

Investing in private equity involves committing capital to private companies. Private equity investors often seek capital appreciation through strategic involvement in the management and operations of these companies.

  1. Hedge Funds:

Hedge funds operate with various strategies, such as long/short positions or global macro approaches. Investors can participate in hedge funds to gain exposure to alternative investment strategies beyond traditional markets.

Wrapping Up

The world of alternative investments unfolds as a dynamic landscape, presenting opportunities for investors to diversify portfolios and seek enhanced returns. While the journey through alternative investments involves navigating unique risks and complexities, their growing relevance in today's financial world cannot be overlooked. As investors venture beyond traditional markets, a nuanced understanding of alternative investments becomes indispensable for making informed, strategic decisions. Embracing the potential benefits of these alternatives requires a thoughtful balance of risk and reward, aligning investment choices with individual financial objectives and a clear-eyed view of the evolving financial terrain.

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  1. How do alternative investments differ from traditional ones?

Alternative investments differ from traditional ones by encompassing a broader range of assets beyond stocks, bonds, and cash. They include real assets, private equity, hedge funds, venture capital, and more.

  1. Are alternative investments good?

The suitability of alternative investments depends on individual investor goals and risk tolerance. While they offer diversification and potential for higher returns, they come with unique risks and complexities.

  1. What are alternative investment strategies?

Alternative investment strategies include long/short positions, distressed debt investing, global macro analysis, and various approaches within private equity, hedge funds, and venture capital.

  1. Are alternative investment funds regulated?

Yes, many alternative investment funds are subject to regulations, but the extent varies. Regulatory oversight helps provide transparency and protection for investors.

  1. Who can invest in alternative investment funds?

Eligibility to invest in alternative investment funds may vary, but they are often accessible to accredited or sophisticated investors due to the complexity and risks associated with these investments.

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