What's in Your Portfolio? The Role of Various Asset Classes

Stocks, bonds, commodities, and other asset classes each play a unique role in your portfolio.

What's in your portfolio?

Ideally, it contains an appropriate blend of investments from various asset classes, such as stocks, bonds, and commodities. Each of these plays a unique role in your portfolio, providing the potential for growth, income, relative stability, or inflation protection. By adjusting how much you own of each asset class, you can adjust the risk/reward potential in your portfolio to create a mix that suits your goals and time horizon.

For example, if your investing goal is many years away, giving you room to handle temporary market swings (that is, you have enough risk capacity), and you can stomach those big moves (risk tolerance), your portfolio might be tilted toward growth assets, such as stocks. On the other hand, if you'll need money from your portfolio soon, or you want less volatility in your portfolio, it might be tilted toward defensive assets, which could include cash, cash investments, and short-term U.S treasuries, which are typically less volatile than stocks and long-term bonds.

Below is a brief overview of major asset classes and what they can bring to your portfolio. Although we've grouped them based on how they're commonly used—for growth, defense, income, or inflation protection—keep in mind that most can fill multiple roles in a portfolio. Note that we've also categorized them according to their relative volatility as part of a broader portfolio, from the relatively riskier growth assets to defensive assets aimed at helping manage risk. (For more information about each of these asset classes, check out The Guide to Asset Classes by the Schwab Center for Financial Research.) It is important to keep in mind that many assets may play multiple roles (for example, U.S. Treasury Securities, while shown as defensive assets, can still provide some income.) Also, note that most of the assets are subject to a wide variety of risks such as interest rates, economic slowdowns, inflation, geopolitical events, and currency rate fluctuations.

The graphic categorizes the various investments into the five main asset classes: growth, growth and income, income, inflation, and defensive assets. The article below goes into the details.

Source: Schwab Center for Financial Research.

For illustrative purposes only.


Investors typically depend on stocks for growth potential over the longer term. Historically, equities have delivered the highest returns—but with correspondingly higher risk of volatility and losses.

  • U.S. large-company (or "large-cap") stocks are publicly traded shares issued by U.S.-based companies with a market capitalization value of more than $14.5 billion. Large-cap companies are generally found in the leading U.S. stock indexes, including the S&P 500® and Dow Jones Industrial Average. They tend to be relatively stable and liquid compared with other types of stocks.
  • U.S. small-company (or "small-cap") stocks are shares issued by U.S.-based companies that have a relatively small market capitalization value; companies with a market cap of $5.2 billion or less are often considered small-caps. Small-cap stocks provide more potential room for growth than large caps, but with commensurately higher volatility. 
  • International developed large-company (or "international developed large-cap") stocks are issued by large-cap companies based in countries considered to be highly developed in terms of their economy and capital markets, such as Japan or Germany. They typically provide growth potential and diversification in a portfolio that mainly includes U.S. Stocks.
  • International developed small-company (or "international developed small-cap") stocks are issued by small-cap companies in developed markets. They offer greater potential for growth than their large-cap counterparts. They also provide diversification in a portfolio that includes U.S. stocks, because the revenues of these companies tend to be tightly tied to their home countries.
  • International emerging-market stocks offer higher growth potential than developed markets, because corporate revenues have the potential to grow faster when economic growth is higher. They also offer diversification, as international emerging markets can perform differently than developed markets.

Growth and income

High-dividend-paying stocks and yield-oriented securities can provide both growth and income, given their potential for both high returns and yield. However, they have various levels of risk, and some may experience significant price declines. Also, as noted above, international investments are subject to factors including currency fluctuations and political instability.

  • U.S. high-dividend stocks are shares of U.S. companies that tend to distribute higher-than-average dividends to shareholders. They can provide both income and growth potential to a portfolio.
  • International high-dividend stocks can provide income, growth, and diversification to a portfolio.
  • U.S. real estate investment trusts (REITs) are publicly traded real-estate related securities. REITs typically invest in commercial properties, such as shopping centers and office buildings. They are required by the IRS to pay out at least 90% of their taxable income to unit holders each year, money that is often exempt from corporate income taxes. REITs can provide income potential, inflation protection, and diversification.
  • International REITs are REITs in countries outside the U.S. They can provide inflation protection, income potential, and diversification.
  • Master limited partnerships (MLPs) are publicly traded securities of partnerships that generate at least 90% of their income from activities related to real estate or the production of oil, natural gas, coal, and other commodities. MLPs offer a tax advantage to investors, as cash flows are not taxed at the company level. MLPs can provide income and growth potential.


A broad array of fixed income investments can provide income. Having a steady stream of income in a portfolio—the kind that fixed-rate coupon payments can provide—can help stabilize a portfolio during a stock market downturn. However, income-oriented investments offer various levels of risk and aren't immune to sharp price declines. We've ranked them in order of relative level of income and potential volatility:

  • Investment-grade municipal bonds are issued by cities, states, counties, and public-purpose entities like hospitals and airports. They generally have relatively high credit ratings and provide income that is typically exempt from federal taxes, making them particularly attractive to investors in high tax brackets who are investing in taxable accounts.
  • U.S. securitized bonds include asset-backed securities (ABS), mortgage-backed securities (MBS), and commercial MBS. They are typically backed by hard assets or loans.
  • U.S. investment-grade corporate bonds are debt securities issued by U.S. companies with relatively high credit ratings. They tend to offer higher yields than comparable-maturity U.S. Treasury bonds.
  • U.S. high-yield corporate bonds, sometimes known as "junk" bonds, are issued by companies with lower credit ratings. Because these bonds are riskier, they typically offer higher yields than comparable investment-grade bonds.
  • Bank loans are loans that banks make to commercial borrowers, which are then sold to investment vehicles like mutual funds and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). They typically pay a floating rate based on a short-term interest rate benchmark. Although many investors buy them for income, because of their floating rate they can also be used as a hedge against interest rate changes.
  • Preferred stocks have characteristics of both stocks and bonds. They generally offer relatively high yields, which can add income potential to a portfolio.
  • International emerging-market bonds are issued by governments and companies in emerging-market countries. They typically offer higher yields to compensate for risk factors such as political instability and currency fluctuations. They can be a source of income and diversification, and they can offer the potential for capital appreciation.


Inflation protection can minimize the corrosive impact of inflation on the value of your investment, though it's probably best to think of such investments as offering diversification against inflation, and not a guarantee to keep pace or to beat inflation over time. Inflation-protected bonds and commodities are two such investments. However, keep in mind that inflation-protected bonds could lose value if deflation were to occur, that commodity prices are often volatile, and that futures trading is risky and not suitable for all investors.

  • U.S. inflation-protected bonds—called Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, or TIPS—are used to protect against rising inflation. At maturity, TIPS pay either the inflation-adjusted principal or the original principal, whichever is higher.
  • Commodities—such as energy, agriculture, industrial metals, and livestock—can provide both diversification and inflation protection to a portfolio. Investors typically don't purchase the actual commodity but invest in mutual funds or ETFs that buy and sell futures contracts, which are agreements to purchase a certain amount of a commodity at an agreed-upon price and date in the future.

Defensive assets

Defensive assets generally have low correlations—that is, they don't move in tandem—with stocks. This means they tend to perform relatively well when the stock market is under pressure—but they may underperform when the stock market is rising. Note that while defensive assets can lessen the impact of volatility on a portfolio, the portfolio may still lose value. Also, international investments and commodities such as gold may be affected by currency fluctuations, geopolitical events, and other factors.

  • Cash and cash investments can offer a high level of stability, as well as liquidity and flexibility when needed. Nominal returns—or returns generated before factoring in things like taxes, fees, or inflation—also generally rise if interest rates and inflation increase. Cash includes money in bank checking accounts, savings accounts, and certificates of deposit (CDs), which are all insured by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).1 Cash also includes money in brokerage accounts, which is protected by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC),2 and money in a purchased money fund,3 which isn't insured, but may offer relatively higher yields than the other cash investments.
  • U.S. Treasury securities including Treasury bills, notes, and bonds are considered a relatively safe, defensive asset class. Their timely payment of principal and interest is backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, making them among the highest-credit-quality investments available. U.S. Treasuries with shorter maturities can be a useful investment for money that could be needed soon, and Treasuries with longer-maturities can provide diversification to stock investments.
  • International developed-country bonds are often considered a defensive asset class that offers U.S.-based investors geographic and currency diversification benefits along with income potential. They can be more volatile, however, than cash, cash investments, and U.S. Treasuries.
  • Gold and other precious metals can be used to help buffer a portfolio against inflation and stock market shocks. Historically, when concern about inflation, geopolitical unrest, or financial system stability is high, investors have tended to buy gold. While gold and precious metals may provide defensive attributes, their prices can be volatile, and we don't suggest them for money that may be needed soon.

1Bank checking accounts, savings accounts, and CDs are insured by the FDIC against the loss of up to $250,000 per depositor, per insured bank, based on account ownership type (e.g., joint accounts) if the FDIC-insured bank were to fail.

2Assets in a brokerage account are protected up to $500,000 per investor, including a maximum of $250,000 in cash, by SIPC, in the event a SIPC-member brokerage fails.

3An investment in a money market fund is not insured or guaranteed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation or any other government agency. Although a money market fund seeks to preserve the value of your investment at $1.00 per share, it is possible to lose money by investing in a money market fund.