Understanding Real vs. Nominal Rates of Return

Investing can be complex, especially when financial terminology is introduced. One of the key concepts to grasp is the difference between real and nominal rates of return. Understanding this distinction can help investors preserve and grow their wealth effectively over time.

What are Nominal and Real Rates of Return?

The nominal rate of return is the percentage increase in your investment without adjusting for inflation. It tells you how much your money has grown in absolute terms. For example, if you invest $1,000 and a year later you have $1,100, the nominal rate of return is 10%.

On the other hand, the real rate of return is the nominal rate adjusted for inflation, which shows the true increase in your purchasing power. It considers how much more you can actually buy with your money after accounting for rising prices. For instance, if your nominal rate is 5% and your inflation rate is 3%, the real rate of return is 2%.

Why Does it Matter?

Understanding the difference between nominal and real rates of return is important for effective investing. Inflation erodes the value of your money over time, so if you only look at the nominal return, you might think you’re making more money than you really are. The real rate of return gives you a clearer picture of how much your wealth is actually growing.

The primary goal of investing is to achieve real rates of return. This helps maintain or increase the purchasing power of your money over time. By achieving real returns, you stay ahead of inflation, and therefore, your investments may be better able to provide a sustainable income stream throughout your life.

If investments only keep pace with inflation, there is no actual gain in purchasing power. This undermines the financial stability and growth of the investor’s portfolio. Therefore, focusing on real rates of return can help investors to better navigate toward financial success and stability.

How Can I Generate Real Rates of Return?

Generating real rates of return usually requires owning a diversified mix of assets. Historically, equities, real estate, and alternative assets such as commodities and private equity have offered significant returns that often outpace inflation.

A balanced investment strategy should also include liquid assets such as cash or cash equivalents like money market funds, which are known for their stability and accessibility. Despite their recent poor performance, bonds can also play a crucial role.

What is the Role of Bonds?

Bonds often receive less attention from investors because of their perceived safety and consistency. However, recent changes in the inflationary dynamic are calling this into question.

For instance, the US Aggregate Bond Index saw a nominal return of -9% over the last three years, while inflation rose by 16.6%, resulting in a real return of -25.6%. Ouch! This highlights the importance of focusing on the credit quality and duration of one’s bond portfolio.

Higher credit quality bonds tend to be more reliable, and managing the duration, or how long money is lent, can help mitigate the risks associated with inflation and interest rate fluctuations. Despite recent negative returns, bonds can offer much-needed diversification if well thought out.

What Should I Take Away?

Understanding the difference between real and nominal rates of return is fundamental for effective investing. By focusing on generating real returns, investors may be able to protect their purchasing power and work toward achieving their long-term financial goals.

A diversified investment strategy that includes various asset classes such as equities, real estate, and bonds –  while considering quality and duration – is essential for navigating potential future inflation.


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certified financial planner Marshall Clay wears a gray jacket and white shirt while posing for professional photo in office

Marshall Clay CFP, J.D., is a Partner and Senior Advisor at The Welch Group, LLC, specializing in providing Fee-Only investment management and financial advice to families throughout the United States. Marshall is a graduate of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, the Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama, and is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™.  In addition, Marshall is a frequent guest on local television stations as an expert on various financial planning matters.



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