So are you feeling lucky?

There are big gains waiting out there for investors who like a little bit of risk.
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The Independent Online
If taking a risk is the way to get rich, how much chance do we stand? Most of us, most of the time, would say that we are unwilling to accept high levels of risk with our money, particularly if the consequence of doing so means losing our shirts.

That may explain why traditional building society or bank accounts are by far the most popular means of saving money in the UK.

Yet we all know taking a risk can be tremendously exciting - be that in various sporting endeavours, or even gambling in the National Lottery. Ask George Soros: he gambled against sterling in 1992, selling huge amounts of the UK currency and buying the German mark instead. He bet on the pound tumbling out of the European exchange rate mechanism. It did, and Mr Soros pocketed $1bn.

Paradoxically, despite saying they they would prefer to play safe, millions of investors do take on "unacceptable" levels of risk. Roddy Kohn of independent financial advisers Kohn Cougar, based in Bristol, says people in general do not really know what investment risk is.

"They perceive the shares of Marks & Spencer to be low risk, but the shares have fallen about 40 per cent within the last year," he says. Kohn Cougar applies its own system of risk ratings to investments, ranging from nought for cash deposits and similar virtually risk-free investments, to 10 for funds investing in the economies of Russia and emerging markets. "But individual shares go off that scale," Mr Kohn says.

By these criteria, about eight million people in this country hold investments which are off the Kohn Cougar risk scale. Though around 12 million people in the UK own shares, according to Pro-Share, an organisation promoting share ownership, but nearly half of them only hold the shares of one company.

Seventy-four per cent are only marginally more diversified, holding shares in up to three companies. "It's wacky, but people get into this euphoria about the stockmarket," says Mr Kohn.

The issue, then, is not whether we should accept vast level of risk with our money - large numbers of us already do so, albeit we are unaware of it. The key test is how much of our money should we be prepared to put at risk and what areas should we target with this money?

As Tim Cockerill, managing director at independent advisers Whitechurch Securities, also in Bristol, says: "You don't have to be rich, you just have to know what you're doing and not over-commit yourself. Anyone with pounds 5,000 in deposit-based investments could commit pounds 500 to a high-yield unit trust."

For example, Marie Thorne, a Whitechurch Securities client, had a pounds 60,000 portfolio to invest. The vast majority went into safe, steady-Eddie funds. But pounds 2,000 of it was invested in Aberdeen Prolific's Technology Fund at the end of November 1996.

At the end of January, that investment had increased by about 95 per cent to pounds 3,900, adding spice to a more neutral, though not unreasonable performance from her other funds.

Technology stocks are widely tipped for strong growth over the next few years, as sophisticated technology increasingly becomes a part of everyday life.

Other top-performing technology funds include SocGen Technology Unit Trust, Henderson Global Technology Fund and International Biotechnology Trust.

But the risk is high, with most technology stocks balancing precariously on high price-earnings ratios - this means current earnings only justify a fraction of today's share price. Share prices in the sector could collapse if these companies fail to live up to the market's expectations.

Investing in emerging markets is one high-risk activity which has fallen flat. A few years ago, Asia was seen as one of the best growth opportunities around. But economic and financial collapse in parts of the region sent share prices tumbling and companies to the wall.

A well-known actor saw his pension fund halved after tens of thousands of pounds of it had been invested in Far East and emerging markets, says Mr Kohn. Some investors are badly advised, and others make their own mistakes. "Too many people buy off the page without understanding," he says.

While you could see your capital decimated or worse with some high-risk investment funds, you could potentially lose the lot if you invest in derivatives such as warrants, options or futures.

Warrants are securities which give you the right to buy the shares of a company at a certain time in the future, and at a certain price. They cost money to buy, and this is your stake. You make money if the share price has risen above the price your warrant let you buy those shares. But if the share price languishes, not even reaching the price stated on your warrant, you could lose a lot of money.

Appreciating that every penny of high-risk investment can potentially go down the plughole is a must. But you should not forget either that aggressive investment strategies - if carefully calibrated to suit your needs - offer the potential for exciting gains. The key is not to invest more than you can afford to lose and being absolutely sure to understand exactly what you are getting involved in.

One even more important point is to always seek highly experienced, qualified independent advice. Finding the right adviser to guide you is vital for anyone who is embarking on a high-risk investment strategy.

After taking all these warnings into account - if you have some spare cash and are prepared to lock it away for a minimum of five to 10 years, it may make sense for you to embark on some profitable excitement, if you're sure it's worth the risk.

Whitechurch Securities: 0117-944 2266; Kohn Cougar: 0117-946 6384

Over the next few weeks, we will publish a series of articles based around the theme of high-risk/high-reward investments, and how you can profit from them. The aim will be to provide readers with a basic understanding of certain areas where - using the maximum caution - it is possible to make significant gains.

At the same time, `The Independent' is offering a free `Guide to High- Risk/High-Reward Investment', which outlines the commonest ways in which savers can obtain higher-than-average returns on their funds, by taking a more aggressive approach with their money. The guide, sponsored by Whitechurch Securities, is available by calling 0845 2711003