Rates of return


The simple rate-of-return ( R ) is a measure of your investment’s profitability for any chosen time interval.  By comparison, the CAGR and IRR are rates of return that measure your investment’s profitability as if it were an orderly process with respect to time.  CAGR is the acronym for “compound annual growth rate”.  It is the constant rate at which an investment’s market value grows every year in a cumulative fashion.  IRR is the acronym for “internal rate of return”, which describes the performance of all cash flows in a financial project such as the individual investor’s program of dollar-cost-averaging or an investment club’s program of portfolio management.  IRR is an annualized rate-of-return when all time intervals are measured in years.


Any profit from your investment is called a return.  There are 2 types of return: realized and unrealized.  Realized returns are cash payments from dividends, interest, and sales.  Unrealized returns are the market values of reinvested dividends and unsold holdings.

return = market value – cost  [equation 1]

Example 1: Suppose you invested $100 and held the stock for 5 years until its market value grew to $201.  From equation 1, you determine that your return is $101.  If you sell it, it’s a realized return; otherwise, it’s an unrealized return.

Simple rate-of-return

The simple rate-of-return ( R ) is a measure of your investment’s profitability for any chosen time interval, but time is not an essential factor in the calculation (equation 2).

 R = return/cost [equation 2]

R is reported as a decimal number or a percentage.

Example 2: The cost of an investment was $100 and 5 years later the return was $101.  From equation 2, R = $101/$100 = 1.01.  Multiply the answer by 100 to find the percentage.  R = 100×1.01 = 101%.


The CAGR is a rate-of-return that measures your investment’s profitability as a growth rate.  Time is a factor in the calculation of CAGR (equation 3).

rate = (final/initial)(1/N) -1  [equation 3]

N is the number of events or time periods between

the initial and final values.

Example 3, simple R versus CAGR: The cost of an investment was $100 and 5 years later its final value was $201.  We know from example 2 that the simple R is 101%.  Using the growth rate formula from equation 3, we find that the CAGR is 15%.

Significance: CAGR is the acronym for “compound annual growth rate”.  It is the constant rate at which an investment’s market value grows every year in a cumulative fashion.

MATH: CAGR is a growth rate that describes the ‘future’ (or final) value of a single cash payment.  In contrast, the discount rate devalues a cash flow.  Both rates represent a common ratio that generates a geometric series of points aligned to a smooth curveref 1. Chart 1 illustrates the geometric series of an inflated and devalued investment.

 Chart 1.  Geometric series.

geometric series

In chart 1, the black circle represents a single investment.  The blue curve is a series of theoretical values related to the investment by a common ratio called the discount rate or the growth rate depending on the particular application.  The discount rate devalues the investment to lower values as a function of the time-period N.  The growth rate inflates the investment to higher values.  Both rates are calculated by the formula in equation 3.


Equation 3 is also used to calculate the IRR, an acronym for the “internal rate of return”.  The IRR is used to measure the profitability of investments with multiple cash flows.  It is a discount rate that balances all devalued cash flows in a financial project.

MATH: In the field of Finance, a devalued cash flow is called the present value.  The present value is found by revising equation 3 to calculate the initial value for time period N at a given discount rate.  The net present value of the project is the sum of all present values.  The IRR is the discount rate that sets the net present value to zeroref 2.  It is the best-fit discount rate found by an iterative process of trial and error.  The significance of the IRR will be discussed after working through example 4.

Example 4, IRR:  An investor paid $100 each year for 4 years to purchase and accumulate shares of a particular stock.  After 5 years the market value of all shares was $735.  Since the purchases were multi year cash flows, the IRR is a good choice for analyzing this investment.  In this example, the trial discount rate is 13.1%.  Table 1 (below) illustrates the analysis:

Table 1.  IRR analysis of the investment in example 4.


Row 1, N displays the time period in years for factor N of equation 3.  Row 2, ACTUAL is the series of investments that began with a $100 payment at time 0.  Additional $100 payments were made at the end of years 1 through 4 for a total cash outflow of $500.   The total market value of the investment was $735 at the end of the 5th year.  To determine the IRR, the present value ref 2 of every cash flow was calculated with the trial discount rate of 13.1% after rearranging equation 3 to solve for the initial value.  Row 3, DISCOUNTED is the series of present values for each cash flow in row 2.  Notice that the total present value of all cash outflows equals the discounted cash inflow of $396.65.  Therefore, the net present value is $0 and the 13.1% discount rate is the investment’s IRRRow 4, PROJECTED is the final value for each present value in row 3.  The final value is predicted by rearranging the terms of equation 3 and using the IRR’s 13.1% as a growth rate for the remaining time.  It’s no accident that the sum of final values in row 4 equals the $735 cash inflow in row 2.  Chart 2 (below) illustrates the growth curves for projected values.

Chart 2. Projected values for every cash outflow in example 4.


In chart 2, N is the time period in years.  Each black square depicts an investment of $100.  Each blue curve shows the predicted growth of the investment.  Every point on a curve is a future value and the endpoint at year 5 is the final value.  The final values are listed in row 4 of table 1.  They decreased as the years progressed because there was less time remaining for growth.

Significance:  The IRR is a rate-of-return that describes the performance of all cash flows in an investment.  The IRR is an annualized rate-of-return when all time intervals are measured in years.

Time distortion

A positive CAGR or IRR always shows a profit.  Conversely, a negative CAGR or IRR always shows a loss.  Higher CAGRs and IRRs imply more profitable investments, but beware that those with short holding periods may grossly misrepresent the long term performance of an investment.

Example 5, time distortion:  Suppose that four different $100 investments grew to $200 apiece.  From equation 1, we know that the return was $100 for every investment.  If the holding periods were 10, 5, 1, and 1/5th years, what were the annualized rates of return?

Table 2.  Annualized- and Simple Rates of return

for different holding periods


Legend.  Equation 3 is used to calculate the annualized rate-of-return when the unit of time is in years.  For this equation, the “Holding period” is the value of N and “Final/Initial” is the quotient of $200 divided by $100.  The 4th column is the annualized rate-of-return calculated by equation 3.  The 5th column is the simple rate of return calculated by equation 2.

High annualized rates are desirable, but don’t feel exuberant about an exceptionally high annualized rate-of-return.  As shown in table 2, the annualized rate-of-return might temporarily be inflated by a brief holding period.  It’s unlikely that a short term investment could sustain the 3,100%, or even 100%, annualized rate-of-return in the long run.

Significance:  The passage of time decreases an annualized rate-of-return when cash flows are static.  ANY increase in the CAGR or IRR over time indicates a profitable increase of cash inflow relative to cash outflow.  It’s always wise to verify this impression by checking the payout of the project.


In the investment world, rates of return are measurements of profitability.  Positive rates indicate profits and negative rates indicate losses.  All rates of return are sensitive to the volatility of market prices; they rise and fall with the market.  The annualized rates of CAGR and IRR are exquisitely sensitive to short time periods; don’t get exuberant about high annualized rates before checking the time period and potential payout.  In the long term, annualized rates tend to decline unless supported by dividend payments and capital gains.  An IRR that is holding steady during the passage of time is revealing an underlying growth in market value.

Copyright © 2015 Douglas R. Knight


  1. Donna Roberts, Geometric sequences and series. Copyright 1998-2012.  http://www.regentsprep.org/regents/math/algtrig/atp2/geoseq.htm
  2. A. Groppelli and Ehsan Nikbakht. Barron’s FinanceFifth Edition.  2006, Barron’s Educational Series, New York.

2 Responses to Rates of return

  1. J.Wenger says:

    Reblogged this on The Safe Investing Blog and commented:
    Good primer for those of you interested in learning how to read financial statements (i.e. everyone).

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