Sports fans may have been enthralled by the recent winter Olympic Games, but alongside the celebrated medalists are dozens of others who committed everything, but left empty-handed.
It's easy to see the analogy with investing - while some are active in the markets on a daily basis, the majority take at least a medium-term view. We're told it's the safe bet. That over time, the stock market out performs "ordinary" savings...
...yet there's always the risk you'll come away with nothing.
So what's the solution? Risk everything on going for gold or settle for a hard-earned bronze? It will depend on your level of risk aversion, but if you're in it for the longer term there are some interesting alternatives that have a certain winning appeal.
S&P - Safe and Profitable?
With a gain of around 30 percent, there's no doubt that S&P's 500 had a good year in 2013 although, as pointed out by Briefing.com's chief market analyst Pat O'Hare, six out of ten home markets actually under-performed expectations (basic materials, consumer staples, energy, technology, telecoms and utilities). While below-par results doesn't necessarily equate to actual losses, it does suggest a degree of volatility and uncertainty - even in some traditionally stable sectors.
So what about social media and mobile computing? While some commentators argue WhatsApp could actually have been worth more than the $19 billion Facebook (News - Alert) are paying, if you happened to have had anything in WhatsApp you would now be laughing all the way to the bank. Sadly, unless you are Sequoia Capital (the only known investor) that didn't happen - but should you still be looking at this market for the next extraordinarily profitable windfall?
It could be a risky strategy. There will undoubtedly be others who go from zero to billions in the blink of an eye, but there will also be the hiss of a great deal of air escaping from dot.com bubbles. Big money will be made, but how do you know where? In most cases there's little track-record to base a valuation on and frequently there's zero profitability!
Is that old favorite, gold, the safe and sure solution? Recent rises have gone some way to recovering the losses of last year, but there are renewed fears that the Fed's intent to reduce stimulus could send values tumbling again. Conversely (and not unsurprisingly) there are those who argue that the circumstances are right for gold to regain its glitter - as history shows it invariably has.
For those taking the long view there will always be attractions beyond the purely visual. Today it stands at around $1300 an ounce - a fall of around 25 percent from 2013 - yet a decade ago that figure was $400. While any commodity is subject to fluctuations few have performed as well over a similar period.
Staying with metals and minerals, it's interesting to look at last weeks' figures from mining giant BHP: a 31 percent increase in profits last year resulting in a 3.5 percent bonus on dividends for shareholders. Given the finite nature of the products they extract, and the continuing growth in demand driven by the manufacture of all those digital gadgets and gizmos we've come to rely on, it's certainly a sector worth a closer look.
Backing The Future
There are a couple of alternatives for the open-minded investor that can not only offer capital growth, but can also support the entrepreneurs who are the lifeblood of any growing economy.
Crowdfunding has become an extremely popular avenue for new businesses trying to finance a particular project or product. While for some investors the reward is little more than the actual involvement, there is potential for those seeking monetary return. It's never going to be the only place you put your money, but it is certainly an area that will be of interest to the more philanthropic.
As is peer-to-peer lending. Although unfortunately tarred with the loan-shark brush by some, there are many legitimate, business-focused organizations in this field. Rates can be anything from 5 to 10 percent and there is at least some level of pre-vetting. While some applicants are simply looking for restructuring finance, it's up to you where you put your money and there are numerous opportunities to help new enterprises while still looking forward to good returns.If we return to our comparison of olympic competitors with investors we find many similarities but one vital difference. If you're an athlete, the key is specialization: if you want to win, you don't try to ski and skate. The opposite is true for the smart investor. When it comes to your money, the way to avoid falling through the ice is to spread yourself.