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What is the “Riskless” (or Risk-Free) Rate of Return?

The Risk-Free Rate of Return: Examining Theory and Reality

The risk-free rate of return is a fundamental concept in modern finance and serves as a benchmark for evaluating the risk and return of investments. This rate represents the theoretical rate of return of an investment with zero risk, providing a baseline against which other financial instruments can be assessed. While the risk-free rate is widely used in financial models and theories, its true level of risklessness is rarely questioned unless extraordinary events disrupt the economy. In this article, we will explore the risk-free rate of return, its calculation, and its practical implications.

Defining the Risk-Free Rate of Return

The risk-free rate of return is the rate of return that an investor would expect from an investment devoid of any risk. It serves as a starting point for measuring the risk and return of other investments in the market. Although a truly risk-free investment is virtually non-existent, certain investments are considered as close to riskless as possible. Among these investments are U.S. Treasury bills, backed by the full faith, credit, and taxing power of the U.S. government. The yield on a 10-year Treasury note is often used as a benchmark for the risk-free rate of return.

The risk-free rate of return plays a crucial role in determining the risk premium associated with different financial instruments. The risk premium represents the additional return required by investors for taking on risks above the risk-free rate. When evaluating investments such as bonds or equities, the yield on a bond or the expected return on equity is compared to the current risk-free rate. The difference between the two is the risk premium, which compensates investors for the additional risk they are assuming.

For debt instruments, such as bonds, investors compare the yield on the bond with the risk-free rate to assess the compensation they are receiving for taking on the credit risk associated with the issuer. Equity investors, on the other hand, evaluate the potential return of an investment by considering the risk premium required to justify the level of risk involved.

Theoretical vs. Real Risk-Free Rate

In theory, the risk-free rate of return is considered to be free of any risk. Many prominent financial theories, including the capital asset pricing model (CAPM), modern portfolio theory (MPT), and the Black-Scholes model, use the risk-free rate as a fundamental component for valuations and calculations. However, in reality, even investments traditionally deemed risk-free carry a minimal level of risk.

To calculate the real risk-free rate, one must account for inflation. By subtracting the current inflation rate from the yield of a Treasury bond matching the investment duration, investors can estimate the real rate of return adjusted for purchasing power.

Practical Considerations

In practice, the choice of a risk-free rate can vary depending on the investor's home market and prevailing economic conditions. Negative interest rates, which have been observed in some countries, further complicate the determination of a risk-free rate. However, in U.S. markets, the interest rate on a three-month U.S. Treasury bill is often used as a proxy for the risk-free rate. This is because the U.S. government is considered to have a negligible risk of defaulting on its obligations, and the market perceives U.S. Treasury securities as extremely safe.

It's important to note that different countries and economic zones may adopt alternative benchmarks as their risk-free rates. For example, the euro or the Swiss franc may serve as proxies for the risk-free rate in the European context.

The risk-free rate of return is a critical component in financial analysis and serves as a benchmark for assessing the risk and return of investments. While a truly risk-free investment is elusive, certain instruments, such as U.S. Treasury bills, are regarded as close to riskless. The risk-free rate provides a reference point for calculating risk premiums and determining the compensation required for assuming additional risk. Despite its theoretical foundations, the real-world risk-free rate carries a minimal amount of risk. Investors must carefully consider the choice of risk-free rate based on their home market and prevailing economic conditions.


For comparisons of the risk/return ratio of an investment, one must start with a benchmark of a risk-free rate of return in the current market.

Since U.S. Treasury bills are backed by the full faith, credit, and taxing power of the U.S. Government, they are considered “riskless,” or as close to riskless as we can get. The current yield on a 10-year Treasury note is generally considered the risk-free rate of return.

This number becomes part of calculations which attempt to find an appropriate price for the amount of risk and return present in other financial instruments. Any amount of risk above the risk-free rate amount is subject to the expectation of a “risk premium,” which exists for both debt and equity instruments.

In the case of debt/bonds, the yield on a bond must be compared with the current rate of the risk-free treasury note. In the case of equities, the risk premium will be the amount of return that will make it worth the investor’s “while” to take on the amount of risk present.

How Do I Measure My Risk Tolerance?
What are Risk-Weighted Assets?

 Disclaimers and Limitations

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