What Is a Return?

A return, also known as a financial return, in its simplest terms, is the money made or lost on an investment over some period of time.

A return can be expressed nominally as the change in dollar value of an investment over time. A return can also be expressed as a percentage derived from the ratio of profit to investment. Returns can also be presented as net results (after fees, taxes, and inflation) or gross returns that do not account for anything but the price change. It even includes a 401(k) investment.

Key Takeaways

  • A return is the change in price on an asset, investment, or project over time, which may be represented in terms of price change or percentage change.
  • A positive return represents a profit while a negative return marks a loss.
  • Returns are often annualized for comparison purposes, while a holding period return calculates the gain or loss during the entire period an investment was held.
  • Real return accounts for the effects of inflation and other external factors, while nominal return only is interested in price change. Total return for stocks includes price change as well as dividend and interest payments.
  • Several return ratios exist for use in fundamental analysis.
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Understanding Returns

Prudent investors know that a precise definition of return is situational and dependent on the financial data input to measure it. An omnibus term like profit could mean gross, operating or net, before tax or after tax revenues or income. An omnibus term like investment could mean selected, average or total assets, debt or equity.

Below are definitions of return variations common to finance lexicon. The financial metrics underlying each return must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis to truly understand the meaning of a particular return.

A holding period return is an investment's return over the time it is owned by a particular investor. Holding period return may be expressed nominally or as a percentage. When expressed as a percentage, the term often used is rate of return (RoR).

For example, the return earned during the periodic interval of a month is a monthly return and of a year is an annual return. Often, people are interested in the annual return of an investment, or year-on-year (YoY) return which calculates the price change from today to that of the same date one year ago.

Returns over periodic internals of different lengths can only be compared when they have been converted to same length intervals. It is customary to compare returns earned during year long intervals. The process of converting shorter or longer return intervals to annual returns is called annualization.

A positive return is the profit, or money made, on an investment or venture. Likewise, a negative return represents a loss, or money lost on an investment or venture.

Nominal Return

A nominal return is the net profit or loss of an investment expressed in nominal terms. It can be calculated by figuring the change in value of the investment over a stated time period plus any distributions minus any outlays. Distributions received by an investor depend on the type of investment or venture but may include dividends, interest, rents, rights, benefits or other cash-flows received by an investor. Outlays paid by an investor depend on the type of investment or venture but may include taxes, costs, fees, or expenditures paid by an investor to acquire, maintain and sell an investment. 

Total return for a stock includes both capital gains/losses and dividend income, while nominal return for a stock only depicts its price change.

For example, assume an investor buys $1,000 worth of publicly traded stock, receives no distributions, pays no outlays, and sells the stock two years later for $1,200. The nominal return in dollars is $1,200 - $1,000 = $200.

Real Return

A real rate of return is adjusted for changes in prices due to inflation or other external factors. This method expresses the nominal rate of return in real terms, which keeps the purchasing power of a given level of capital constant over time. Adjusting the nominal return to compensate for factors such as inflation allows you to determine how much of your nominal return is real return. Knowing the real rate of return of an investment is very important before investing your money. That’s because inflation can reduce the value as time goes on, just as taxes also chip away at it.

Investors should also consider whether the risk involved with a certain investment is something they can tolerate given the real rate of return. Expressing rates of return in real values rather than nominal values, particularly during periods of high inflation, offers a clearer picture of an investment's value.

Returns Ratios

Returns ratios are a subset of financial ratios that measure how effectively an investment is being managed. They help to evaluate if the highest possible return is being generated on an investment. In general, returns ratios compare the tools available to generate profit, such as the investment in assets or equity, to net income, the actual profit generated.

Returns ratios make this comparison by dividing selected or total assets or equity into net income. The result is a percentage of return per dollar invested that can be used to evaluate the strength of the investment by comparing it to benchmarks like the returns ratios of similar investments, companies, industries, or markets. For instance, return of capital (ROC) means the recovery of the original investment.

Return on Investment (ROI)

A percentage return is a return expressed as a percentage. It is known as the Return on Investment (ROI). ROI is the return per dollar invested. ROI is calculated by dividing the dollar return by the dollar initial investment. This ratio is multiplied by 100 to get a percentage. Assuming a $200 return on a $1,000 investment, the percentage return or ROI = ($200 / $1,000) x 100 = 20%.

Return on Equity

Return on Equity (ROE) is a profitability ratio figured as net income divided by average shareholder's equity that measures how much net income is generated per dollar of stock investment. If a company makes $10,000 in net income for the year and the average equity capital of the company over the same time period is $100,000, the ROE is 10%.

Return on Assets

Return on Assets (ROA) is a profitability ratio figured as net income divided by average total assets that measures how much net profit is generated for each dollar invested in assets. It determines financial leverage and whether enough is earned from asset use to cover the cost of capital. Net income divided by average total assets equals ROA.

For example, if net income for the year is $10,000, and total average assets for the company over the same time period is equal to $100,000, the ROA is $10,000 divided by $100,000, or 10%.