Alternative Investment Definition

What Is an Alternative Investment?

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. Alternative investments can 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.

Key Takeaways

  • An alternative investment is a financial asset that does not fit into the conventional equity/income/cash categories.
  • Private equity or venture capital, hedge funds, real property, commodities, and tangible assets are all examples of alternative investments.
  • Most alternative investments have fewer regulations from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and tend to be somewhat illiquid.
  • While traditionally aimed at institutional or accredited investors, alternative investments have become feasible to retail investors via alternative funds.


Alternative Investments

Understanding Alternative Investments

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. Many alternative investments have high minimum investments and fee structures, especially when compared to mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). These investments also have less opportunity to publish verifiable performance data and advertise to potential investors. Although alternative assets may have high initial minimums and upfront investment fees, transaction costs are typically lower than those of conventional assets due to lower levels of turnover.

Most alternative assets are fairly illiquid, especially compared to their conventional counterparts. For example, investors are likely to find it considerably more difficult to sell an 80-year old bottle of wine compared to 1,000 shares of Apple Inc. due to a limited number of buyers. Investors may have difficulty even valuing alternative investments, since the assets, and transactions involving them, are often rare. For example, a seller of a 1933 Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle $20 gold coin may have difficulty determining its value, as there are only 13 known to exist and only one can be legally owned.

Regulation of Alternative Investments

Even when they don’t involve unique items like coins or art, alternative investments are prone to investment scams and fraud due to the lack of regulations.

Alternative investments are often subject to a less clear legal structure than conventional investments. They do fall under the purview of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, and their practices are subject to examination by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). However, they usually don’t have to register with the SEC. As such, they are not overseen or regulated by the SEC as are mutual funds and ETFs.

So, it is essential that investors conduct extensive due diligence when considering alternative investments. In some cases, only accredited investors may invest in alternative offerings. Accredited investors are those with a net worth exceeding $1 million—not counting their primary residence—or with an annual income of at least $200,000 (or $300,000 combined with a spousal income). Financial professionals who hold a FINRA Series 7, 65, or 82 license may also qualify as an accredited investor.

Some alternative investments are only available to accredited investors—e.g., those with a net worth above $1 million, or an annual income of at least $200,000.

Strategy for Alternative Investments

Alternative investments typically have a low correlation with those in standard asset classes. This low correlation means they often move counter 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—also called 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.


  • Counterweight to conventional assets

  • Portfolio diversification

  • Inflation hedge

  • High rewards


  • Difficult to value

  • Illiquid

  • Fewer regulatory requirements

  • High-risk

Example of Alternative Investments

Just being regulated does not mean that alt funds are safe investments. The SEC notes, “Many alternative mutual funds have limited performance histories.”

Also, although its diversified portfolio naturally mitigates the threat of loss, an alt fund is still subject to the inherent risks of its underlying assets. Indeed, the track record of ETFs that specialize in alternative assets has been mixed.

For example, as of January 2022, the SPDR Dow Jones Global Real Estate ETF had an annualized five-year return of 6.17%. In contrast, the SPDR S&P Oil & Gas Exploration & Production ETF posted a return of –6.40% for the same period.

What Are the Key Characteristics of Alternative Investments?

Alternative investments tend to have high fees and minimum investments, compared to retail-oriented mutual funds and ETFs. They also tend to have lower transaction costs, and it can be harder to get verifiable financial data for these assets. Alternative investments also tend to be less liquid than conventional securities, meaning that it may be difficult even to value some of the more unique vehicles because they are so thinly traded.

How Can Alternative Investments Be Useful to Investors?

Some investors seek out alternative investments because they have a low correlation with the stock and bond markets, meaning that they maintain their values in a market downturn. Also, hard assets such as gold, oil, and real property are effective hedges against inflation. For these reasons, many large institutions such as pension funds and family offices seek to diversify some of their holdings in alternative investment vehicles.

What Are the Regulatory Standards for Alternative Investments?

Regulations for alternative investments are less clear than they are for more traditional securities. Although alternative investment vehicles are regulated by the SEC, their securities do not have to be registered. As a result, most of these investment vehicles are only available to institutions or wealthy accredited investors.

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