Advertisement

Risk-free rate

One way to think about the size of return you should be aiming for is to consider the return you could get if you took absolutely no risk at all – the “risk-free rate of return”.

When you decide to invest in equities, or property, or bonds, or anything else, the return you expect to get should reflect the amount of risk you are taking. In theory (though not always in practise), the more risk you shoulder, the bigger the return you should expect. One way to think about the size of return you should be aiming for is to consider the return you could get if you took absolutely no risk at all the "risk-free rate of return".

Advertisement - Article continues below

Clearly, there is no such thing as a 100% risk free asset. Globally speaking, the risk-free rate usually describes the return you can get on US Treasury bills, a short-term American government IOU. No sovereign debt not even that issued by America - is entirely risk-free, but US debt is generally seen as being as close to risk-free as you can get. The US, as the world's most important economy with the world's most important currency, is highly unlikely to default in nominal terms (as it can always print its own currency if pushed). For UK investors (who would incur currency risk if buying US Treasuries), UK government-issued gilts would provide the risk-free rate.

The risk-free rate fluctuates over time. Currently, partly because of high demand for "safe" assets following the 2008 crash, but largely as a result of quantitative easing and other efforts by central banks to cut interest rates, the risk-free rate is either negative in "real" terms (after inflation) or even in nominal terms (in some parts of Europe in particular, you still effectively have to pay to lend to governments, as noted in the main story above). As a result, investors who are seeking a "real" return, have been forced to take on more risk investing in equities or corporate debt, for example whereas in the days before the financial crisis, it was possible to achieve a 2%-plus real return simply by investing in "safe" government debt.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Recommended

Visit/glossary/bonds
Glossary

Bonds

A bond is a type of IOU issued by a government, local authority or company to raise money.
19 May 2020
Visit/spending-it/glossary/601300/quantitative-investing
Glossary

Quantitative investing

Quantitative investing uses sophisticated computer-based mathematical models to identify and carry out trades.
8 May 2020
Visit/glossary/quantitative-easing-qe
Glossary

Quantitative easing (QE)

Quantitative easing (QE) involves electronically expanding a central bank's balance sheet.
8 May 2020
Visit/glossary/600702/emerging-markets
Glossary

Emerging markets

An emerging market is an economy that is becoming wealthier and more advanced, but is not yet classed as "developed".
24 Jan 2020

Most Popular

Visit/economy/eu-economy/601422/heres-why-investors-should-care-about-the-eus-plan-to-tackle-covid-19
EU Economy

Here’s why investors should care about the EU’s plan to tackle Covid-19

The EU's €750bn rescue package makes a break-up of the eurozone much less likely. John Stepek explains why the scheme is such a big deal, and what it …
28 May 2020
Visit/investments/commodities/industrial-metals/601401/money-printing-infrastructure-base-metals-copper
Industrial metals

Governments’ money-printing mania bodes well for base metals

Money is being printed like there is no tomorrow. Much of it will be used to pay for infrastructure projects – and that will be good for metals, says …
27 May 2020
Visit/investments/stockmarkets/601423/as-full-lockdown-ends-what-are-the-risks-for-investors
Stockmarkets

As full lockdown ends, what are the risks for investors?

In the UK and elsewhere, people are gradually being let off the leash as the lockdown begins to end. John Stepek looks at what risks remain for invest…
29 May 2020