Your guide to investments: Read before investing

18 September 2023 by National Bank
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Where do you start investing? What different types of investments should you know about? Since the world of investing can seem REALLY complicated, let’s start with some important definitions. Here’s a short lexicon of types of investments to guide you.

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In this article:

Types of investments: what to invest in?

What is a stock?

When you buy a stock on the stock exchange, you're buying part of the company that issued it. It’s a share, a portion, a percentage of that company.

The stock's return, or ability to generate profits or losses, depends primarily on supply and demand. The more demand there is for a stock, the more its value should increase and vice-versa. Therefore, when you sell a stock (for more or less than the original purchase price), it generates a capital gain or loss.

For example, if you buy a stock for $10 and sell it for $15, you have a capital gain of $5 ($15 minus $10).

The return can also be paid in the form of dividends to shareholders. This is an amount issued per share for a given period of time. It’s a bit like a reward.

For example, you receive $1 for every share of a company’s stock that you own.

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Good to know: Mature companies that don't usually reinvest their profits in development often issue dividends.

What type of investor profile are stocks suitable for?

The value of a stock depends on supply and demand, and how successful a company is. When you invest in stocks, you are therefore exposed to a certain level of risk that depends on several factors, such as the:

  • Economic climate
  • Company’s stability
  • Company’s profitability
  • Performance of the company’s leaders and their business strategy

Owning stock in a self-directed investment portfolio generally requires good knowledge of the stock exchange, time to spare, and good risk tolerance.

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Level of risk: Medium to very high (depending on the stock)

What is a bond?

When you own a government or corporate bond, you become a creditor. This means that the government or corporation that issued the bond owes you money or is indebted to you.

Bonds pay returns in the form of interest called coupons. The coupons are paid at a specific frequency—often every 6 months. Here are the main types of bonds:

  • Fixed-rate: The return is determined when the bond is issued, based on a fixed rate of interest
  • Variable-rate: The return varies according to changes in market rates
  • Index-linked: The return depends on a fixed rate of interest that is linked to a specific index (e.g., the Consumer Price Index) determined when the bond is issued
  • Zero-coupon: The interest is paid in full at maturity

When a bond matures: You get back your original investment plus any interest paid (coupons) unless the issuer declares bankruptcy.

You can also sell your bonds before they mature. In this case, however, the resale price is subject to the bond’s market price, meaning that interest rates influence its value. You would therefore make money if the resale value was higher than the payment expected at maturity, or, conversely, lose money if the resale value was lower.

In certain cases, you can exchange your bonds for shares in the issuing company when (or before) the bonds mature.

What type of investor profile are bonds suitable for?

Bonds are a good starting point for self-directed investing, or for investors who are just getting their feet wet. They’re a flexible option with a relatively low level of risk, but they can still provide a decent return.

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Level of risk: Very low (bonds issued by certain countries, like Canada) to medium or even high (bonds issued by certain corporations)

What are investment funds and ETFs?

Investment funds (or mutual funds) are made up of a pool of money collected from many investors. The pooled funds are then invested in a variety of different securities (stocks, bonds, etc.). It’s like a huge bouquet of mixed flowers.

Money managers choose the securities for the fund and use various strategies according to the fund’s objective (e.g., long-term growth). This type of investment doesn’t have a maturity date and can be purchased or sold at any time.

Exchange-traded funds (ETFs) are similar to mutual funds but are traded like shares on the stock exchange. They tend to track a particular index, sector, or commodity, e.g., the Toronto Stock Exchange index (the TSX) or the price of gold.

What type of investor profile are investment funds suitable for?

Investment funds are a good way to start investing your savings. They are a simple way to invest in a diverse range of securities all at once.

There is a wide range of funds on the market. They are often classified according to activity sector, industry, or particular interest, and the return objective, e.g., if you want to invest specifically in Canadian companies, you can choose a Canadian equity fund.

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Good to know: Management fees for ETFs are usually lower than for mutual funds.

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Level of risk: Low to high (depending on the fund chosen)

Discover our self-directed investing platform:

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What are foreign currencies and cryptocurrencies?

You can also invest your money in currencies other than Canadian dollars. The return will depend on fluctuations in the currency’s value. When you resell the currency, you will have a capital gain or loss.

For example, if you notice that the U.S. dollar is fairly low, you may decide to buy some and then sell when its value goes back up. Here’s how that would work:

  • You pay CAD 100 to buy USD 100 because the currencies are at par that day.
  • A few months later, the value of the U.S. dollar has increased. It’s now worth 20% more than the Canadian dollar.
  • You sell your USD 100 for CAD 120 and make a profit of CAD 20.

Note: Some financial institutions may charge currency exchange fees, i.e., a fixed transaction fee or a percentage of the transaction.

Buying cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrencies (like bitcoin) are digital currencies that you can buy and sell to generate a capital gain (or loss). Be aware, however, that in Canada, the platforms and digital tools used to exchange cryptocurrency are not generally supported by major financial institutions.

An alternative to buying cryptocurrency

You can also access certain cryptocurrencies through ETFs. This is a simpler and more secure way to invest in cryptocurrency.

Cryptocurrency regulation

Cryptocurrencies are subject to fairly strict regulations, specifically with respect to taxation.

If you decide to invest in cryptocurrency, consult the Canadian government’s Guide for cryptocurrency users and tax professionals.

What type of investor profile are foreign currencies and cryptocurrencies suitable for?

Foreign currencies and cryptocurrencies can be interesting options for motivated investors who have the time to learn about and monitor them. This applies particularly to cryptocurrencies, which are very volatile. Since their value can change very quickly, you’ll want to keep a close eye on them.

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Level of risk: High

What is a guaranteed investment certificate (GIC)?

Guaranteed investment certificates (GICs) are investments with a fixed term (between 30 days and 10 years). They usually have a fixed rate, except for index-linked GICs, which fluctuate according to the performance of a stock market index. They are not usually redeemable before they mature.

Investors are guaranteed to retain at least their original investment when a GIC matures. This applies even if the issuer declares bankruptcy (thanks to the Canada Deposit Insurance Corporation and subject to certain terms and conditions).

What type of investor profile are GICs suitable for?

GICs are a very secure option that guarantees you won’t lose any money. Their return, however, isn’t usually very high.

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Level of risk: Very low

What is a Treasury bill?

Treasury bills (T-bills) are a lot like bonds. When you buy them, you become a holder of third-party debt. It’s like lending money with the promise of being repaid with interest. T-bills differ from bonds in two ways:

  • They are debt securities issued by provincial and federal governments
  • They are short-term debt securities (mature within one year)

T-bills are guaranteed by the government that issues them. They can also be sold before they mature and are sold in denominations of $1,000 (up to $1 million).

What type of investor profile are Treasury bills suitable for?

Treasury bills are very secure, but don’t offer a very high return.

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Level of risk: Very low

Other useful investment-related definitions

What are fixed-income securities?

They are investments like bonds that earn interest to provide a fixed income, i.e., every year, you receive a percentage of the amount you originally invested.

What is a guaranteed investment?

Guaranteed investments, such as GICs, ensure that the money you invest is never lost. This means that the original amount invested is protected, but the interest is not. You usually buy this type of investment at a branch of your financial institution.

What is an option?

An option is a contract between two parties that offers the right to buy or sell an asset at a stated price within a specific time period. An option can apply to several types of assets (stocks, bonds, currencies, interest rates, stock market indexes, or exchange-traded funds (ETFs)). Options are considered securities, and can be traded on the stock exchange, like shares.

What is a savings vehicle?

It’s an account or a plan where you deposit or build up your savings for investing or a future project (e.g., studies, retirement, or buying a property). Here are the most popular savings vehicles:

These accounts/plans have certain tax advantages and sometimes provide access to government incentives. For example, with the Home Buyers’ Plan (HBP), you can make a tax-free withdrawal from your RRSP toward the purchase of your first home, subject to certain conditions.

What is an investment horizon?

It's the period of time you expect to hold an investment before you need to withdraw the funds. Your investment horizon can depend on your objectives, your investor profile, and the type of investments you’ve chosen.

Want to know more about investing and the strategies to adopt? Read our article on investment strategies.

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