Risk–Return Trade-Off

Investors invest for anticipated future returns, but those returns rarely can be predicted precisely. There will almost always be risk associated with investments. Actual or realized returns will almost always deviate from the expected return anticipated at the start of the investment period. For example, in 1931 (the worst calendar year for the market since 1926), the S&P 500 index fell by 46%. In 1933 (the best year), the index gained 55%. You can be sure that investors did not anticipate such extreme performance at the start of either of these years.

Naturally, if all else could be held equal, investors would prefer investments with the highest expected return. However, the no-free-lunch rule tells us that all else cannot be held equal. If you want higher expected returns, you will have to pay a price in terms of accepting higher investment risk. If higher expected return can be achieved without bearing extra risk, there will be a rush to buy the high-return assets, with the result that their prices will be driven up. Individuals considering investing in the asset at the now-higher price will find the investment less attractive. Its price will continue to rise until expected return is no more than commensurate with risk. At this point, investors can anticipate a “fair” return relative to the asset’s risk, but no more. Similarly, if returns were independent of risk, there would be a rush to sell high-risk assets and their prices would fall. The assets would get cheaper (improving their expected future rates of return) until they eventually were attractive enough to be included again in investor portfolios. We conclude that there should be a risk–return trade-off in the securities markets, with higher-risk assets priced to offer higher expected returns than lower-risk assets.

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