What is an Asset Class?
An asset class is a group of investments that have similar characteristics, behave similarly and are subject to similar market forces, laws and regulations.
How Does an Asset Class Work?
Typical asset classes include stocks, bonds, real estate, cash and commodities. These groups can also be broken down further. For example, the asset class 'stocks' can be broken down either by industry -- e.g., manufacturing, automotive or energy -- or by a more general characteristic of the investment -- e.g., value, growth or blue chip.
Why Does an Asset Class Matter?
When diversifying a portfolio, it is crucial to have investments spread across different asset classes. Since investments belonging to the same asset class are expected to have correlated changes in value, having investments in only one asset class is proverbially putting all of your eggs in one basket. By diversifying across asset classes, volatility within your portfolio (e.g. risk) will decrease.
A portfolio manager will often have a prescribed allocation of investments across different asset classes based on the investor's risk preference, and then only have to choose which stocks to buy in a particular class. It is often most important to look at the general characteristics of an investment and how it fits into the overall market rather than minute details of a stock.
Generally speaking, a conservative portfolio will have a higher percentage of cash and risk-free bonds, while a portfolio aiming for a higher return will have more stocks and risky bonds.
To read more about diversifying into different asset classes, check out Diversified Investments -- A Beginner's Guide to Protecting Your Nest Egg.