What Is the Risk/Reward Ratio and How to Use It
Table of Contents
Introduction
What is the risk/reward ratio?
How to calculate the risk/reward ratio
The reward/risk ratio
Risk vs. reward explained
Using risk/reward ratio with other ratios
Closing thoughts
What Is the Risk/Reward Ratio and How to Use It
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What Is the Risk/Reward Ratio and How to Use It

What Is the Risk/Reward Ratio and How to Use It

Beginner
Published Aug 21, 2020Updated Aug 16, 2022
8m

TL;DR

The risk/reward ratio tells you how much risk you are taking for how much potential reward.

Good traders and investors choose their bets very carefully. They look for the highest potential upside with the lowest potential downside. If an investment can bring the same yield as another but with less risk, it may be a better bet.

Introduction

Whether you’re day trading or swing trading, there are a few fundamental concepts about risk that you should understand. These form the basis of your understanding of the market and give you a foundation to guide your trading activities and investment decisions. Otherwise, you won’t be able to protect and grow your trading account.

We’ve already discussed risk management, position sizing, and setting a stop-loss. However, if you’re actively trading, there’s something crucially important to understand. How much risk are you taking in relation to the potential reward? How does your potential upside compare to your potential downside? In other words, what is your risk/reward ratio?

In this article, we’ll discuss how to calculate the risk/reward ratio for your trades.

What is the risk/reward ratio?

The risk/reward ratio (R/R ratio or R) calculates how much risk a trader is taking for potentially how much reward. In other words, it shows what the potential rewards for each $1 you risk on an investment are.

The calculation itself is very simple. You divide your maximum risk by your net target profit. How do you do that? First, you look at where you would want to enter the trade. Then, you decide where you would take profits (if the trade is successful), and where you would put your stop-loss (if it’s a losing trade). This is crucial if you want to manage your risk properly. Good traders set their profit targets and stop-loss before entering a trade.

Now you’ve got both your entry and exit targets, which means you can calculate your risk/reward ratio. You do that by dividing your potential risk by your potential reward. The lower the ratio is, the more potential reward you’re getting per “unit” of risk. Let’s see how it works in practice.

How to calculate the risk/reward ratio

Let’s say you want to enter a long position on Bitcoin. You do your analysis and determine that your take profit order will be 15% from your entry price. At the same time, you also pose the following question. Where is your trade idea invalidated? That’s where you should set your stop-loss order. In this case, you decide that your invalidation point is 5% from your entry point.

It’s worth noting that these generally shouldn’t be based on arbitrary percentage numbers. You should determine the profit target and stop-loss based on your analysis of the markets. Technical analysis indicators can be very helpful.

So, our profit target is 15% and our potential loss is 5%. How much is our risk/reward ratio? The calculation is simple:

Risk/Reward Ratio = Potential Loss / Potential Profit

In this case, it is 5/15 = 1:3 = 0.33. Simple enough. This means that for each unit of risk, we’re potentially winning three times the reward. In other words, for each dollar of risk we’re taking, we’re liable to gain three. So if we have a position worth $100, we risk losing $5 for a potential $15 profit.

We could move our stop loss closer to our entry to decrease the ratio. However, as we’ve said, entry and exit points shouldn’t be calculated based on arbitrary numbers. They should be calculated based on our analysis. If the trade setup has a high risk/reward ratio, it’s probably not worth it to try and “game” the numbers. It might be better to move on and look for a different setup with a good risk/reward ratio.

Note that positions with different sizing can have the same risk/reward ratio. For example, if we have a position worth $10,000, we risk losing $500 for a potential $1,500 profit (the ratio is still 1:3). The ratio changes only if we change the relative position of our target and stop-loss.

The reward/risk ratio

It’s worth noting that many traders do this calculation in reverse, calculating the reward/risk ratio instead. Why? Well, it’s just a matter of preference. Some find this easier to understand. The calculation is just the opposite of the risk/reward ratio formula. As such, our reward/risk ratio in the example above would be 15/5 = 3. As you’d expect, a high reward/risk ratio is better than a low reward/risk ratio.

Example trade setup with a reward/risk ratio of 3.28.

Example trade setup with a reward/risk ratio of 3.28.

Risk vs. reward explained

Let’s say we’re at the zoo and we make a bet. I’ll give you 1 BTC if you sneak into the birdhouse and feed a parrot from your hands. What’s the potential risk? Well, since you’re doing something you shouldn’t, you may get taken away by the police. On the other hand, if you’re successful, you’ll get 1 BTC.

At the same time, I propose an alternative. I’ll give you 1.1 BTC if you sneak into the tiger cage and feed raw meat to the tiger with your bare hands. What’s the potential risk here? You can get taken away by police, sure. But, there’s a chance that the tiger attacks you and inflicts fatal damage. On the other hand, the upside is a little better than for the parrot bet, since you’re getting a bit more BTC if you’re successful.

Which seems like a better deal? Technically, they’re both bad deals, because you shouldn’t sneak around like that. Nevertheless, you’re taking much more risk with the tiger bet for only a little more potential reward.

In a similar way, many traders will look for trade setups where they stand to gain much more than they stand to lose. This is what’s called an asymmetric opportunity (the potential upside is greater than the potential downside).

Using risk/reward ratio with other ratios

One of the ratios used alongside the risk/reward ratio is the win rate. Your win rate is the number of your winning trades divided by the number of your losing trades. For example, if you have a 60% win rate, you are making a profit on 60% of your trades (on average). Let’s see how you can use this in your risk management.

For example, a trader engaged in buying and selling options may risk losing $100 to gain $700. In this case, their risk/reward ratio is 1:7. However, the options they are trading for are risky and can provide a win rate of only 20%. 

Keeping in mind the win rate, take this other scenario: if they complete ten trades of $100, spending $1000 to do so, they stand a chance to win $1400. Using these calculations, both the risk/reward ratio and the win rate, the trader may believe that his activities provide a higher chance to profit than to lose. 

But what if the trader only got $500 per successful options trade? Then they would only get $1000 back from their $1000 trades. This would solely be the break-even point. So, with a win ratio of 20%, his risk/reward ratio should be at least 1:5. 

Traders can look at their historical win rate and use it to calculate a risk/reward ratio that could estimate enough potential profit for them when trading. However, using the risk/reward ratio in this way has fairly limited use. It’s almost impossible to determine the win ratio of a future trade or activity, and you can only work with past data. Nevertheless, using the risk/reward ratio with another indicator can be an extra tool in a trader's toolkit.

Closing thoughts

We’ve looked at what the risk/reward ratio is and how traders can incorporate it into their trading plan. Calculating the risk/reward ratio is essential when it comes to the risk profile of any money management strategy.

What’s also worth considering when it comes to risk is keeping a trading journal. By documenting your trades, you can get a more accurate picture of the performance of your strategies. In addition, you can potentially adapt them to different market environments and asset classes.

Even so, some traders can be highly profitable with a very low winning rate. Why? Because the risk/reward ratio on their individual trade setups accommodates for it. If they only take setups with a risk/reward ratio of 1:10, they could lose nine trades in a row and still break-even in one trade. In this case, they’d only have to win two trades out of ten to be profitable. This is how the risk vs. reward calculation can be powerful.

Additionally, the win-loss ratio can also be used to calculate a trader’s risk/reward ratio. Used with your win rate, your win-loss ratio is your winning trades over your losing trades, which aids you in determining your success rate. For example, if you have a win//loss rate of 60 percent, you are losing 60% of the time. You can also use this in your risk management as it helps you calculate your risk/reward ratio.

Using other ratio formulas, such as win rate and win/loss ratio, allows traders to calculate their risk/reward ratio. More specifically, they can determine the value of their wins and losses, which estimates the risks that a trader might have.