Risk Premiums: Definition and Examples


In the world of investments, a risk premium is like hazard pay for your financial endeavors. It represents the additional return an investment is expected to yield over the risk-free rate of return. This compensation serves as a reward for investors who are willing to take on the extra risk associated with certain assets. Just like hazard pay acknowledges the dangers of a job, a risk premium acknowledges the uncertainties of investments. In this article, we’ll delve deep into the concept of risk premiums, explore how they work, and understand their significance in the world of finance.

Risk Premiums: Like hazard pay for your investments

Investing can sometimes feel like a high-wire act without a safety net. The financial markets are filled with opportunities, but they are also fraught with risks. One way to navigate this precarious terrain is by understanding the concept of a risk premium. Think of it as the extra compensation you receive for taking on the inherent risks of an investment.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore risk premiums from every angle, uncovering their definition, how they work, their role in different investment scenarios, and much more. By the end, you’ll have a clear understanding of why risk premiums are like hazard pay for your investments.

What is a risk premium?

A risk premium is the investment return an asset is expected to yield in excess of the risk-free rate of return. An asset’s risk premium is a form of compensation for investors. It represents payment to investors for tolerating the extra risk in a given investment over that of a risk-free asset.

For example, high-quality bonds issued by established corporations earning large profits typically come with little default risk. Therefore, these bonds pay a lower interest rate than bonds issued by less-established companies with uncertain profitability and a higher risk of default. The higher interest rates these less-established companies must pay is how investors are compensated for their higher tolerance of risk.

How a risk premium works

Think of risk premium as a form of hazard pay for your investments. An employee assigned dangerous work expects to receive hazard pay in compensation for the risks they undertake. It’s similar with risky investments. A risky investment must provide the potential for larger returns to compensate an investor for the risk of losing some or all of their capital.

This compensation comes in the form of a risk premium, which is the additional returns above what investors can earn risk-free from investments such as a U.S. government security. The premium rewards investors for the prospect of losing their money in a failing business, and it isn’t actually earned unless the business succeeds.

A risk premium can be construed as a true earnings reward because risky investments are inherently more profitable should they succeed. Investments in well-penetrated markets—and which tend to have predictable outcomes—are not likely to change the world. On the other hand, paradigm-shifting breakthroughs are more likely to come from novel and risky initiatives. It’s these types of investments that can potentially offer superior returns, which a business owner may then use to reward investors. This one underlying incentive is why some investors seek riskier investments, knowing they can reap potentially bigger payoffs.

The equity risk premium

The equity risk premium (ERP) refers to the excess return that investing in the stock market provides over a risk-free rate. This excess return compensates investors for taking on the relatively higher risk of buying stocks.

The size of the premium varies depending on the level of risk in a particular portfolio and also changes over time as market risk fluctuates. As a rule, high-risk investments are compensated with a higher premium. Most economists agree the concept of an equity risk premium is valid: over the long term, markets compensate investors more for taking on the greater risk of investing in stocks.

The equity risk premium can be computed in several ways, but is often estimated using the capital asset pricing model (CAPM):

Weigh the risks and benefits

Here is a list of the benefits and the drawbacks to consider.

  • Potential for higher returns
  • Rewards innovation and growth
  • Can outperform less risky investments
  • Higher risk of losing capital
  • Not suitable for risk-averse investors
  • Market volatility can lead to losses

The cost of equity is effectively the equity risk premium. Rf is the risk-free rate of return, and Rm-Rf is the excess return of the market, multiplied by the stock market’s beta coefficient.

From 1928 to 2022, the U.S. ERP averaged 5.06%, compared with 4.6% for the 1871-1925 period and 2.9% for the earlier 1802-1870 period. From 1926 to 2002, the equity risk premium was particularly high at 8.4%, which puzzled economists. From 2011 through 2022, the average market risk premium in the U.S. was 5.5%.

What is the current equity risk premium?

At the beginning of May 2023, the ERP stood at 4.77%, according to Aswath Damodaran, a professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University. That is slightly less than average and a sharp drop from the 5.94% registered at the start of 2023.

Lower ERPs generally make investing in stocks less compelling, whereas higher ERPs imply higher potential rewards. The year 2022 was a volatile one for stock markets and the ERP subsequently moved quite a bit. According to Damodaran, it started 2022 at 4.24% and began 2023 at 5.94%, perhaps implying that the market was viewed as undervalued after a sharp sell-off.

The drop in ERP since the start of 2023 can be attributed to several factors, including a rise in equity valuations and a series of interest rate hikes from the Federal Reserve boosting returns on safer fixed-income investments.

What is the risk premium for an investment?

The risk premium is the extra amount you’re expected to get for taking on risk. It is the percentage return you get over what you’d receive if you made an investment with zero risk. So, for example, if the S&P has a risk premium of 5%, it means you should expect to get 5% more from investing in this index than from investing in, say, a guaranteed certificate of deposit.

How is risk premium calculated?

The risk premium can be calculated by subtracting the expected return of a risk-free investment from the expected return of an investment with risk. What you are left with is the compensation for the risk you’re taking on.

The higher the risk of losing capital, the more an investor expects to be compensated. This compensation comes in the form of a risk premium, which basically means the extra returns above what can be earned on an investment without risk.

Over the past 90-odd years, the risk premium of stocks in the U.S. has averaged about 5%. Equity markets can fluctuate a lot, though, and a higher ERP doesn’t necessarily mean you should buy, just as a lower ERP shouldn’t necessarily force you to look elsewhere.

Examples of risk premium in action

Understanding risk premiums becomes more vivid with real-world examples. Let’s take a closer look at how risk premiums come into play in different investment scenarios:

Corporate bonds vs. government bonds

Imagine you’re considering two types of bonds: one issued by a stable government and another by a growing but relatively new company. The government bond is considered risk-free, while the corporate bond carries more risk due to the company’s lower track record. The difference in interest rates between these two bonds represents the risk premium investors demand for choosing the corporate bond.

Stock market investments

Investing in stocks inherently involves risk, and the equity risk premium is a key factor. If you’re contemplating investing in a tech startup’s stock versus a well-established tech giant, the potential for higher returns from the startup comes with a higher risk premium. It’s the premium investors seek to compensate for the risk of backing an innovative but less proven company.

The role of risk premium in portfolio diversification

Now, let’s explore how risk premiums play a crucial role in diversifying your investment portfolio:

Balancing risk and reward

When building a diversified investment portfolio, you aim to strike a balance between risk and reward. Risk premiums guide your asset allocation decisions. For example, you may allocate a portion of your portfolio to stocks with a higher equity risk premium to potentially boost overall returns while maintaining stability with bonds offering lower risk premiums.

Realizing long-term gains

Risk premiums can also influence your long-term investment strategy. If you have a high tolerance for risk and a longer investment horizon, you might lean more towards assets with higher risk premiums, as they can potentially deliver substantial gains over time. Conversely, if you’re risk-averse and prefer stability, you may favor investments with lower risk premiums.

Measuring and adjusting risk premiums

Measuring and adjusting risk premiums are essential aspects of informed investing:

Using CAPM to estimate equity risk premium

The Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM) is a widely used tool for estimating the equity risk premium. It considers factors like the risk-free rate and a stock’s beta coefficient to determine the premium. Investors often use this model to evaluate the potential return of an investment in relation to its inherent risks.

Adjusting risk premiums in changing markets

Markets are dynamic, and risk premiums fluctuate accordingly. As an investor, staying attuned to changing market conditions is vital. For instance, during periods of economic uncertainty, risk premiums may rise as investors seek higher compensation for increased uncertainty. Being able to adjust your investment strategy in response to shifting risk premiums can help you optimize your portfolio.

The bottom line

Risk premiums are the financial world’s way of acknowledging that not all investments are created equal. Some come with hazards, just like certain jobs, and for investors to take on these risks, they must be compensated. This compensation is in the form of a risk premium, which is the additional return investors expect for venturing into riskier territory.

Understanding risk premiums is essential for making informed investment decisions. It helps investors assess the potential rewards and dangers associated with different assets. So, the next time you contemplate an investment, remember that you’re essentially negotiating your own form of hazard pay—your risk premium.

Now armed with a comprehensive understanding of risk premiums, you can approach your investment decisions with greater confidence and insight. Remember that, like hazard pay in a dangerous job, risk premiums are there to reward you for embracing the financial risks that come your way.

Frequently asked questions about risk premiums

What is a risk premium?

A risk premium is the additional return an investment is expected to yield over the risk-free rate of return. It compensates investors for taking on the extra risk associated with certain assets.

How does a risk premium work?

Think of it as hazard pay for your investments. Just as an employee expects compensation for dangerous work, investors expect extra returns for the risk of losing some or all of their capital.

What is the equity risk premium (ERP)?

The equity risk premium refers to the excess return that investing in the stock market provides over a risk-free rate. It compensates investors for the higher risk of buying stocks compared to risk-free assets.

How is the equity risk premium calculated?

The equity risk premium is often estimated using the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM), which considers factors like the risk-free rate and a stock’s beta coefficient.

What is the significance of risk premiums in investing?

Risk premiums play a crucial role in helping investors assess potential rewards and dangers associated with different assets. They guide asset allocation decisions and influence long-term investment strategies.

How do risk premiums affect portfolio diversification?

Risk premiums help investors balance risk and reward when building a diversified investment portfolio. They guide asset allocation decisions and influence the selection of assets with different risk premiums.

Why do risk premiums fluctuate?

Risk premiums in the market can fluctuate due to changing market conditions. Factors like economic uncertainty, interest rate changes, and market sentiment can all influence risk premiums.

Are higher risk premiums always better for investors?

No, higher risk premiums imply higher potential rewards but also higher risks. The suitability of a higher risk premium depends on an investor’s risk tolerance and investment goals.

Key takeaways

  • Risk premiums compensate investors for taking on extra risk in investments.
  • The equity risk premium reflects the excess return from stocks over risk-free assets.
  • Understanding risk premiums is crucial for informed investment decisions.
View article sources
  1. Country Default Spreads and Risk Premiums – NYU Stern
  2. Explaining and Forecasting Bond Risk Premiums – JSTOR
  3. Public debt and the risk premium: A dangerous doom loop – CEPR
  4. The Government Risk Premium Puzzle – Fuqua Conferences – Duke University