Free Lunch

What Is a Free Lunch?

A free lunch refers to a situation where there is no cost incurred by the individual receiving the goods or services being provided. For example, if an individual needs to travel from New York to Boston and catches a ride with their friend without contributing to gas or meals along the way, that can be considered a free lunch. In the world of investing, free lunch usually refers to riskless profit, which has been proven to be unattainable for an extended period of time.

Key Takeaways

  • A free lunch describes a situation where an individual receives goods or services at no cost.
  • A free lunch's cost is opportunity cost.
  • In investing terms, a free lunch is usually a profit without risks.
  • The notion of riskless reward is, for the most part, a theoretical concept because a free lunch in investing cannot exist due to the constant trade-off investors make between risk and reward.
  • Treasuries cannot be a free lunch even though they are low risk because some risk exists as well as the opportunity cost of losing out in investing in higher-yield assets.

Understanding Free Lunch

It is patently intuitive that a free lunch cannot exist, or if it is occurring, then it is only a matter of time before it is cut off. It refers to a situation in which a good or service is received at seemingly no cost because the expense is passed along to someone else or is obfuscated. Saloons in the 1800s sometimes offered a free lunch to patrons who kept ordering drinks as a way to bring in more business. This is partly how the saying made its way into common parlance.

A free lunch in investing cannot exist because of the constant trade-off investors make between risk and reward. The greater the inherent risk in an investment, the greater the reward. This is a fundamental truism. Conversely, securities with less risk generally have commensurately lower returns. So, the notion of riskless reward is, for the most part, a theoretical concept that provides fodder for academic discussions. On the rare occasions when this does occur, it will quickly be snuffed out by arbitrageurs who, by their actions, eliminate the inefficiencies that gave rise to the free lunch.

Are Treasury Securities Free Lunch?

The most conservative investment is U.S. Treasuries. Treasuries have such a low amount of risk that many investors consider the risk to be nonexistent. Few expect the U.S. government to ever go belly-up, or renege on its debt obligations; however, Treasuries cannot be considered riskless. They can decline substantially in value if demand wanes, or if the supply dramatically increases.

Some in the investing community refer to diversification as the only true free lunch due to a portfolio of different investments having the ability of better-adjusted returns than the individual parts.

Moreover, Treasuries tend to pay fairly paltry yields, and often rise significantly in value only during periods of severe economic uncertainty. For this reason, there is an opportunity cost to investing in Treasuries. That is, investors in Treasuries miss out on the potentially higher returns of riskier investments, such as investment-grade credit, commodities, futures, and equities

Given that Treasuries are often a safe haven in times of uncertainty, they tend to rise when stocks are under severe pressure. For this reason, many investors utilize them as a hedge, or as part of a diversified portfolio. But this cannot eliminate portfolio risk completely, which, once again, validates the argument against the existence of a free lunch.

When a Free Lunch Isn't Free

Investors must remain particularly wary of a seemingly free lunch when dealing with annuity investments that promise a stream of fairly high, fixed payments over a period of multiple years. Many of these investments remain laden with fees, some of which may not be fully understood by investors. In general, any investment that promises a guaranteed return is not a free lunch. Also, unlike bonds, annuities leave investors with no principal at the end of the term.

Also of note, some brokerages heavily marketed mortgage-backed securities (MBS) as a seemingly free lunch in the early 2000s. These investments were described as being very safe, AAA-rated investments, backed by a diversified pool of mortgages; however, the housing crisis in the U.S. exposed the true underlying risk of these investments, as well as a faulty rating system that classified pools of loans as AAA, even when many of the underlying loans carried very substantial default risks.

What Is a Free Lunch In Economics?

In economics, free lunch implies that there is no cost to an individual for a particular good or service; however, that cost is borne by another individual. In investing, a free lunch refers to a profit without risk, which is not truly possible as all investments have risks, regardless of how small that risk may be.

What Does "There Ain’t No Such Thing As a Free Lunch" Mean?

The phrase implies that even though something, such as a lunch, may appear free for an individual, it is not actually free. That there is a cost included somewhere, whether that cost is paid via other means than traditional cash, such as opportunity cost, or that someone else pays the cost. The phrase implies that nothing in life is free.

Who Is Milton Friedman and What Is the Free Lunch Myth?

Milton Friedman was an economist who was a strong proponent of free-market capitalism. One of his books was entitled There's No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. The free lunch myth he discusses was the belief that the government can spend money at no one's expense. This, of course, is not true, due to the inherent costs of taxation and printing money.

The Bottom Line

A free lunch is a good or service that the user does not incur a cost for. This does not mean there is no cost associated with the free lunch but rather that the cost is borne by someone other than the end-user. In investing, a free lunch refers to a riskless profit; however, this is primarily used for academic purposes as there is always a risk in investing to generate profit, even if that risk is minimal.

Article Sources

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  1. Restaurant-ing Through History. "Lunch and a Beer." Accessed Feb. 17, 2022.

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