RISK-FREE RATE: Meaning, How to Calculate It & Difference

Risk Free Rate
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Since all investments involve some level of risk, there is no such thing as a risk-free rate of return in reality. To calculate the actual risk-free rate, subtract the inflation rate from the yield of the Treasury bond that corresponds to the duration of your investment. This is a typical estimate of the interest that an investor might earn with a zero-risk investment.

Although this concept is purely theoretical, it can be helpful for understanding how investment risk operates and how to lower it in your portfolio. It is essential to read this article if you want more details.

Risk-Free Rate

This is an estimate of the interest that a potential investor might earn on a zero-risk investment over a specified time frame. To put it another way, it is the lowest return you can anticipate from an investment. 

You can subtract the yield on the Treasury bond that corresponds to the length of your investment from the current inflation rate to determine the “real” risk-free rate. Theoretically, an investor expects the risk-free rate to be the minimum return on any investment because they won’t take on additional risk unless the potential rate of return is higher. When interest rates are negative, it can be more challenging to establish a proxy for the risk-free rate of return, which must take into account the investor’s home market.

However, in reality, there is no such thing as a truly risk-free rate since even the safest investments involve some degree of risk. As a result, for investors based in the United States, the interest rate on the three-month U.S. treasury bills.

The three-month U.S. Treasury bill serves as a useful stand-in because the market believes there is almost no chance that the U.S. government will default on its debt. The market’s vast size and high liquidity help to create the impression of safety. When investing in U.S. Treasury bills, a foreign investor who does not have dollars as their primary currency faces currency risk. You can use currency forwards and options to manage the risk, but doing so will lower the rate of return. 

What Are the Sources of Risk?

Risk can appear in the forms of absolute risk, relative risk, or default risk. The absolute risk, as defined by volatility, can be quickly and simply quantified using commonly used metrics like standard deviation. Typically, you can use the relationship between an asset’s price fluctuation and an index or base to represent a relative risk when it comes to investments. Due to the short duration of the risk-free asset, you cannot apply either absolute or relative risk.

Using the 3-month T-bill as the risk-free rate exposes investors to default risk, which in this case refers to the possibility that the United States government will stop making payments on its debt obligations. The nominal risk-free rate and the real risk-free rate are two different ways to discuss the risk-free rate. The impact of inflation is the cause of the discrepancy.

The nominal risk-free rate is the yield on a 3-month T-bill at the time of purchase, without taking inflation into account. The yield on the 3-month T-bill less the effect of inflation, is the real risk-free rate.

The real risk-free rate is the yield an investor would need on a potential investment to avoid experiencing inflation risk. This is the rate at which you can assume inflation to be constant or to be declining.

What is the US Treasury Definition of a T-Bill?

Due to their representation by and backing by the U.S. government’s good faith, most people believe that Treasury bills (T-bills) have no default risk. At a weekly auction, where there is intense bidding, they are sold for less than par. You can sell them in a variety of maturities in denominations of $1,000, unlike their relatives, the Treasury notes, and Treasury bonds, which do not pay conventional interest payments. Lastly, the government offers them for direct sale to the general public.

What Is the Importance of the Risk-Free Rate?

The basis for all other financial institutions, including the cost of equity, is a risk-free rate. As a result, other institutions must provide higher returns than the risk-free rate to maintain the balance of investment return rates and attract investors. It aids in calculating the firm’s weighted average cost of capital (WACC). WACC stands for the lowest rate of return required to generate a fair value for a particular firm.

The Formula for Risk-Free Rate

Real Risk-Free Rate = Risk-Free Rate – Inflation Premium

Risk-Free Rate of Return

A risk-free return is an interest that you will earn on an investor’s money over a certain period from a completely risk-free investment. Theoretically, the risk-free return is the return on an investment with no risk.

Risk-Free Return Explained 

An excellent illustration of a risk-free return is the yield on U.S. Treasury securities. Since the government cannot go bankrupt, U.S. Treasury as having low risk. To meet its obligations for principal repayment and interest payments in the event of a cash flow shortage, the government can simply print more money. As a result, investors frequently use the interest rate on a three-month U.S. Treasury bill (T-bill) as a stand-in for the short-term risk-free rate since short-term government-issued securities have almost no default risk due to the full faith and credit of the U.S. government backing them.

You can use the risk-free return as a benchmark when comparing other returns. Investors who buy securities with a level of risk above that of a U.S. Treasury will ask for a higher rate of return than the risk-free rate. The difference between the return earned and the return under risk-free conditions is the risk premium on security.

An alternative method is to multiply the return on a risk-free asset by a risk premium to determine the overall expected return on investment. As the safest investment a person can make, you regard a 3-month Treasury bill as typically paying interest at the risk-free rate in practice.

Risk-Free Rate vs. Discount Rate 

The term “risk discount” refers to the difference between an investment’s return and its risk-free rate of return. The risk premium is the difference between an investment’s return and the risk-free rate, or the risk discount, depending on whether it is higher or lower. When investing in traditional assets like treasury bonds, you use the risk-free rate of return as the discount rate.

On the other hand, the weighted average cost of capital (WACC) may be used as a discount rate when a company assesses the viability of a potential project. This is an example of the typical cost a business would incur to borrow money or sell equity.

Is a Risk-Free Rate Higher Than Inflation? 

When you factor inflation into the real risk-free rate of return, the investor loses money.

How Do You Choose a Risk-Free Rate CAPM? 

The Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM) explains the connection between systematic risk or the general dangers of investing, and the expected return for assets, particularly stocks. The required return on investment and risk are connected linearly by this financial model. 

The capital asset pricing model (CAPM) is a type of financial model that investors use to calculate an asset’s expected rate of return. The capital asset pricing model (CAPM) is a model that explains the connection between the expected return and risk of investing in securities. It proves that an investment’s expected return is equal to its risk-free return plus a risk premium determined by using the security’s beta.

CAPM accomplishes this by using the asset’s beta, or market sensitivity, along with the expected return on the market and a risk-free asset. The CAPM has some drawbacks, including skewed assumptions and a reliance on a linear interpretation of risk vs. return.

Capital Asset Pricing Model Formula

The CAPM formula is still in use despite its flaws. This is because it is straightforward and makes comparing different investment options simple.

You can determine the expected return on an investable asset using the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM), one of the fundamental financial models. This adds the returns on securities to the risk-free return and a risk premium that is based on the beta of the security to determine the expected return. The CAPM formula appears as follows:

Ra = Rf + [Ba x (Rm -Rf)]

where Ra = return on a security

Ba = beta of a security

Rf = risk-free rate

Note: “Risk Premium” = (Rm – Rrf)

The risk premium is calculated by deducting the risk-free return from the market return, which is represented as Rm – Rf in the CAPM formula. The market risk premium is the excess return that investors expect to make up for the extra return volatility that investors will experience above and beyond the risk-free rate. You can think of a risk premium as a return rate that is higher than the risk-free rate. When investing, investors want a higher risk premium to encourage them to make riskier bets. 

What Are 3 Ways to Measure Risk?

#1. Beta

Beta expresses how much systematic risk a specific security or sector poses in comparison to the entire stock market. The market, which always has a beta of one, serves as the benchmark for the beta performance of investments. When evaluating investments against the overall market, beta is most helpful. The variance of the excess market returns over the risk-free rate is multiplied by the covariance between the excess returns of an investment and the market to obtain the beta value.

#2. R-squared

R-squared is a statistical metric that shows how much of the movements in a fund portfolio or security can be accounted for by changes in a benchmark index. The range of R-squared values is 0 to 1, and they are frequently expressed as percentages (0% to 100%). When attempting to ascertain the causes of an investment’s price changes, R-Squared is the most helpful. R-Squared is calculated by dividing the total variance (the sum of all squares) by the unexplained variance (the sum of squares of residuals). After that, take it away from this ratio.

#3. Alpha

Alpha calculates risk concerning the market or a chosen benchmark index. For instance, the performance of a fund would be compared to that of the chosen index if the S&P 500 was chosen as the benchmark. An investment is said to have positive alpha if it outperforms its benchmark. It is said that a fund has negative alpha if its performance falls below that of the benchmark. It gauges portfolio performance above a benchmark index. The capacity to produce “alpha” is, in this sense, what makes a portfolio manager valuable. 

Why Is the U.S. 3-Month T-Bill Used as the Risk-Free Rate?

There will never be a rate that is truly risk-free because even the safest investments involve some degree of risk for investors with U.S.-based accounts, the interest rate on a three-month U.S. Treasury bill is frequently used as the risk-The market believes that there is almost no chance of the U.S. government defaulting on its debt, making this a useful proxy. obligations. The market’s vast size and high liquidity help to create the impression of safety. 


Theoretically, the risk-free rate is the minimum rate of return an investor should anticipate for any investment because, in the absence of a higher expected rate of return, any risk would be viewed as unacceptable. Although there is indeed no risk-free rate, in reality, even the safest investments involve a tiny amount of risk. 

Risk-Free Rate FAQs

What Is Risk-Free Rate of Return?

This is a typical estimate of the interest that an investor might earn with a zero-risk investment.

Is a Risk-Free Rate Higher Than Inflation? 

When you factor inflation into the real risk-free rate of return, the investor loses money, and vice versa.

What Are 3 Ways to Measure Risk?

  • Alpha
  • Beta
  • R-Squared
  • Standard Deviation
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