Real Rate of Return

Guide to Understanding the Real Rate of Return

• What formula calculates the real rate of return?
• Why is it important to calculate the real rate of return on an investment?
• What is the difference between the real rate of return and the nominal rate?
• What is inflation and the Consumer Price Index (CPI)?

Real Rate of Return Formula

The real rate of return is typically viewed as a more accurate return metric since it considers the factors that affect the actual return, namely inflation.

The real return is calculated using the formula shown below.

Real Return Formula
• Real Rate of Return = (1 + Nominal Rate) ÷ (1 + Inflation Rate) – 1
• Nominal Rate: The nominal rate is the stated rate of return on an investment, such as the offered rate on checking accounts by banks.
• Inflation Rate: The inflation rate is most often estimated using the Consumer Price Index (CPI), a price index that tracks the average change in price across time of a chosen basket of consumer goods and services.

For example, let’s assume that your portfolio of stocks generated a stated annual return of 10%, i.e. the nominal rate.

However, let’s say that inflation was 3% for the year, which reduces the 10% nominal rate.

The question now is, “What is your portfolio’s real rate of return?”

• Real Return = (1 + 10.0%) ÷ (1 + 3.0%) – 1 = 6.8%

Real Rate vs. Nominal Rate – Return Metrics

Unlike the real rate, the nominal rate is the unadjusted rate of return, ignoring the effects of inflation and taxes.

In contrast, the real return earned on an investment is the nominal rate adjusted by the following two factors to estimate the “actual” return.

1. Inflation
2. Taxes

Inflation and taxes can erode returns, so they are serious considerations that should not be ignored.

In particular, the real and nominal rates will deviate from each other more drastically in times of high inflation, such as in 2022.

2022 CPI Report Inflation Data (Source: CNBC)

For instance, if the nominal rate stated on your checking account is 3.0% but inflation for the year was 5.0%, the real return rate is a net loss of –2.0%.

Thus, your savings accounts actually declined in value, in “real” terms.

The next adjustment is for taxes.

• Tax-Adjusted Nominal Rate = Nominal Rate × (1 – Tax Rate)

Once the tax-adjusted nominal rate is calculated, the resulting rate would then be plugged into the real rate of return formula as presented earlier.

Real Rate of Return Calculator – Excel Template

We’ll now move to a modeling exercise, which you can access by filling out the form below.

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Present Value (PV) Example Calculation

Suppose we are calculating an investment’s real rate of return, in which the nominal return was 10.0%.

If the inflation rate in the same period came out as 7.0%, what is the real return?

• Nominal Rate = 10%
• Inflation Rate = 7.0%

Using those assumptions, we arrive at a real return of 2.8%.

• Real Rate of Return = (1 + 10.0%) ÷ (1 + 7.0%) – 1
• Real Return = 2.8%

Compared to the 10% nominal rate, the real return is approximately 72% lower, reflecting how influential inflation can be on actual returns.

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