In this publication, we’re going to explain the differences between absolute return, also known as total return, and relative return. As part of that explanation, we’ll first provide a definition of each term, as well as its calculation. Next, we’ll talk about why it’s important to consider both measures of an investment’s performance, and provide examples to illustrate this point. Finally, we’ll summarize the value of these two terms, and explain how they can be used by investors to evaluate the growth of their holdings.
The most commonly reported measure of an investment’s performance is its absolute return. Unfortunately, the absolute return only provides half the story. Whenever an investor is trying to answer the question: How well is this investment performing? The answer needs to be stated in both absolute as well as relative terms.
As mentioned, the absolute return is the measure most investors talk about, or read about, when discussing, or researching, an investment. The calculation of absolute return is straightforward, and takes the following form:
Absolute Return = (Current Value - Original Investment) / Original Investment
Current Value = the current value of the investment
Original Investment = the original value of the investment
Absolute return is typically reported on an annual basis, and is usually stated as a percentage. We’re going to demonstrate this calculation in the example that follows.
Absolute Return Example
In this first example, we have an original investment of $1,000, which grew to $1,500 after two years. Using the formula above, we know:
Absolute Return = ($1,500 - $1,000) / $1,000
Absolute Return = $500 / $1,000 = 0.50, or 50%
If we want to state the above return on an annual basis, then we would divide our absolute return by the number of years over which the return occurred. In this example, the absolute return would be 50% / 2 years, or 25% per year.
The relative return on an investment provides the investor with insights into the performance of the asset relative to a benchmark. For example, we might want to evaluate the performance of a domestic stock mutual fund versus the S&P 500 Index. By comparing the return of an investment to a benchmark, we can better understand its performance relative to one of our alternatives.
Since the relative return takes into consideration a benchmark, the calculation is slightly more complex than absolute return:
Relative Return = Absolute Return of Investment – Absolute Return of Benchmark
Interestingly, the above equation provides additional insights into the relationship between absolute and relative returns.
Relative Return Example
In this second example, we have an original investment of $1,000, which grew to $1,500 after two years. In addition, our benchmark investment of $1,000 grew to $1,100 during that same timeframe. Using the formula above, we know:
Absolute Return of Investment = 50% (as solved in our first example)
Absolute Return of Benchmark = ($1,100 - $1,000) / $1,000
Absolute Return of Benchmark = $100 / $1,000 = 0.10, or 10%
Substituting the above values into our equation:
Relative Return = 50% - 10% = 40%
Once again, if we want to state the above return on an annual basis, then we would divide our relative return by the number of years. In this example, the relative return would be 40% / 2 years, or 20% per year. That is to say, our investment outperformed its benchmark by 20% per year.
Pros and Cons: Absolute and Relative Returns
Now that we know how to calculate each return, it’s time to discuss the value each concept provides to investors. Perhaps the easiest way to discuss the worth of each term is to summarize the pros and cons of each return:
- Pros: Absolute Return – a familiar term to most investors, values can be quickly found in stock and mutual fund prospectuses, simple to calculate.
- Cons: Absolute Return – does not take into consideration the fact investors have choices, relies on investors to compare returns when researching alternatives.
- Pros: Relative Return – provides investors with insights into the performance of an investment relative to a benchmark. If the benchmark chosen is the rate of inflation, provides investor with growth of money in real terms.