What are safe-haven assets

Safe-haven assets tend to provide a good store of value over time and include low-risk resources such as gold.

a woman wearing a sparkly strapless dress leans on a neat stack of six gold bars as she smiles and looks to the side as though she is very happy and protective of her stash. She also has gold fingernails and gold glitter pieces affixed to her cheeks.

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Safe-haven assets are low-risk resources like gold that provide a good store of value over time.

And while they may not offer the astronomical returns of some growth shares, they can be vital when defending your portfolio against the effects of economic downturns.

Safe-haven assets typically maintain value even during economic uncertainty, so investors often flock to them when financial markets become volatile.

The most popular safe-haven asset is gold. Throughout thousands of years of human history, gold has maintained its status as a valuable commodity. This makes it an ideal place to park your money when financial markets get shaky.

Gold prices will often increase during economic downturns and market crashes as demand for the commodity (from nervous investors) increases. Because the price of gold – and other safe-haven assets – often goes up when the prices of other financial assets are plummeting, it can provide excellent diversification benefits for your portfolio. 

However, gold is not the only safe-haven asset. We also view other precious metals, high-quality bonds, certain currencies, and even some shares as safe-haven assets, and they can all provide similar diversification benefits.   

What are the main characteristics of these assets?

Stores of value: As mentioned, safe-haven assets provide a good store of value over time. This means they don't tend to deteriorate in value, at least over the long term.

Gold, and some other precious metals, are good examples of stores of value. Throughout history – and across cultures – these assets have almost always been considered valuable.

Highly liquid: Because there is always an active market of buyers and sellers for safe-haven assets, investors can quickly convert them to cash in a crisis. This is why real estate isn't typically considered a safe-haven asset. While property tends to be a good store of value and exhibits many characteristics of safe-haven assets, a lengthy sale process makes it difficult to convert to cash quickly.

Always in demand: There is a continuous demand for the asset. In addition to making the asset more liquid, strong demand also helps prop up prices. This is a big part of why safe-haven investments can generate such stable returns over time.

Limited supply: Safe-haven assets typically have a limited supply. They might be rare and difficult to find, like precious metals or their supply might be capped at a particular level by the issuer, as is the case with currencies or government bonds. Scarcity often gives assets higher intrinsic value. Once we know that something will only ever be a finite resource, it automatically makes it seem more precious.

Permanence: This means that safe-haven assets don't lose value or relevance through decay or damage. Gold lasts forever and does not diminish in quality over time.

4 examples of safe-haven assets

Gold and other precious metals

The most common safe-haven asset people generally think of is gold. Throughout history, gold has been considered valuable and a signifier of wealth. However, we regard other metals, such as silver, platinum and palladium, as precious. 

Precious metals are naturally scarce and historically have been used as currency – in the case of silver and gold – or in art, decorations and jewellery.


Traditionally, we view some currencies as safe-haven assets, notably the US dollar, the Japanese yen and the Swiss franc. These currencies belong to countries with strong economies and a long history of stable interest and foreign exchange rates. 

The US dollar is also the global reserve currency. It is always in high demand due to its use in many cross-border business transactions.  

Treasury bonds and ETFs

Government bonds are backed by the financial strength of the country issuing them, so we consider them safe-haven assets. Bonds issued by the governments of developed nations with healthy economies – like the United States, United Kingdom or Australia – are often viewed as practically 'risk-free' assets. 

They provide regular coupon payments over the bond's life, plus the return of your invested capital at maturity, and the issuing government is unlikely to default on their interest obligations.

However, it is still essential to remember that factors such as inflation, interest rates, and changes in the issuing country's credit rating can still cause government bond prices to fall.

Bonds typically require a substantial minimal investment (think upwards of $500,000), making it difficult for everyday investors to get into the market. However, many exchange-traded funds (ETFs) listed on the ASX provide a more accessible option if you want exposure to bonds. ETFs trade more or less like ordinary shares and aim to mirror the returns of a benchmark index or asset class.

Defensive shares, such as utilities

Some shares can also be safe-haven assets. While they still tend to be riskier than other safe-haven assets like bonds or gold, some types of shares can offer protection from economic downturns.

Generally, we consider shares in utility companies, consumer staples, healthcare, and other essential goods and services as defensive stocks. Demand for these goods and services remains high even during economic downturns and recessions. This means these companies can keep turning a profit even when times are tough.  

Is cash a safe-haven asset?

Cash might seem like the most obvious safe-haven asset in a downturn, especially when the prices of other financial assets like equities, real estate, or corporate bonds are tumbling. 

However, cash doesn't offer any real return on investment, and inflation can erode its value. This makes cash less attractive than a safe-haven commodity such as gold, which tends to increase in price during a downturn, thereby offering some protection against the effects of inflation.

What about crypto?

There has been some debate about whether cryptocurrencies can be considered safe-haven assets, with some investors even referring to Bitcoin (CRYPTO: BTC)  as 'digital gold'.

As with many other safe-haven assets, Bitcoin does have a limited supply. The number of tokens that can be mined is capped at 21 million, and around 19 million have been mined to date. Many analysts believe this scarcity trait gives Bitcoin intrinsic value, hence the 'digital gold' moniker.

However, Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are still a relatively new asset class, so their ability to maintain value over time hasn't been tested. Most cryptocurrency prices have also been volatile, which reduces their attractiveness as a safe and stable store of value.

Pros of investing in safe-haven shares

Portfolio protection: Investing a portion of your portfolio in safe-haven shares can help offset some losses you might otherwise experience during economic downturns. You can rest a little easier knowing your portfolio has built-in protection for tough times.

Diversification: The prices of safe-haven shares are not highly correlated with the rest of the market. This means that safe-haven shares can offer diversification benefits for your portfolio, reducing the variability of your overall returns and helping you steadily grow your wealth.

And disadvantages

Slow or no growth: Although safe-haven shares have proven valuable over the long term, their short-term growth rates are usually low. Higher rates of return compensate investors for taking larger risks – but the whole point of buying safe-haven shares is to reduce risk. This means safe-haven shares may only offer minimal growth potential.

Inflation: Because of their low growth rates, there is the potential that the returns earned from safe-haven shares may not keep up with high inflation. This is particularly true for government bonds and foreign currency ETFs and means the actual value of your safe-haven investment may still decline in inflationary periods.

When to invest in safe-haven shares

There is no wrong time to invest in safe-haven shares. Think of it as taking out insurance on your portfolio to give yourself support if the financial markets become volatile.

The amount of your portfolio you have invested in safe-haven shares and assets will likely change over time. 

As you get older, your risk appetite will probably decrease. You may wish to preserve your wealth for retirement and shift more of your portfolio into fixed-income securities like bonds. These are more likely to guarantee a stable revenue stream when you are no longer working.

When should you sell your safe-haven shares?

Having some of your portfolio invested in safe-haven shares is always advantageous. They provide diversification benefits and reduce the overall volatility of your portfolio's returns.

However, when you're younger and have more time to grow your wealth, you might invest more of your portfolio in riskier assets like international stocks that deliver better longer-term returns than safe-haven assets. 

Similarly, if equities are going through a bull market, you might miss out on earning higher returns if too much of your portfolio is allocated to safe havens.

Ensuring your portfolio has the right mix of riskier assets and safe-haven shares is always a balancing act. When buying safe-haven shares, consider your overall risk appetite, investing goals, and economic outlook.

This article contains general educational content only and does not take into account your personal financial situation. Before investing, your individual circumstances should be considered, and you may need to seek independent financial advice.

To the best of our knowledge, all information in this article is accurate as of time of posting. In our educational articles, a 'top share' is always defined by the largest market cap at the time of last update. On this page, neither the author nor The Motley Fool have chosen a 'top share' by personal opinion.

As always, remember that when investing, the value of your investment may rise or fall, and your capital is at risk.

The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. This article contains general investment advice only (under AFSL 400691). Authorised by Scott Phillips.