Because investors are very concerned with how well their investments are performing or how they are expected to perform, knowing how to gauge such performance is essential. This makes understanding the difference between yield and return important.

While both terms are often used to describe the performance of an investment, yield and return are not one and the same thing. Knowing what each measure takes into account and recognizing that each considers different time periods is key.

Return, also referred to as "total return", expresses what an investor has actually earned on an investment during a certain time period in the past. It includes interest, dividends and capital gain (such as an increase in the share price). In other words, return is retrospective, or backward-looking. It describes what an investment has concretely earned.

Yield, on the other hand, is prospective, or forward-looking. Furthermore, it measures the income, such as interest and dividends, that an investment earns and ignores capital gains. This income is taken in the context of a certain time period and then annualized, with the assumption that the interest or dividends will continue to be received at the same rate. Yield is often used to measure bond or debt performance; in most cases, total return will not be the same as the quoted yield due to fluctuations in price.

(To learn more about yield, check out the Bond Basics Tutorial.)

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