What Is a Good Rate of Return for an Investment?

Don't fool yourself about how "good" a rate of return should be.

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As times and markets change, so do the thresholds for what is considered a respectable rate of return on an investment, that seemingly magical number that signifies the income generated by the investment as a percentage of its initial cost. A "good" rate of return for you is ultimately, in some measure, dependent on your own financial goals. The key to boiling down your expectations to a specific number for various investments is to not become overly enamored of any one number or range of percentages.


There is no single answer for what a good rate of return for your investments should be. Return rates are heavily influenced by prevailing market forces and a host of other factors. Because of this, a good rate of return should generally be at least slightly larger than the rate of return of the market as a whole.

Relative to Existing Market Conditions

A rate of return that was considered good in one era may no longer be so in another. Market conditions change and old standards give way to new, and what was once "high" or "good" could now be considered shooting for the moon. If the stock market as represented by the S&P 500 is netting a 7 percent annual rate of return, an investment that has an 8 percent rate of return may not be your idea of a dream investment, but it is still doing better than one of the leading benchmarks.

Your investments should, at minimum, keep pace with prevailing rates of return on "the market," namely the going return on standard stock market indexes such as the S&P 500. If your investment is not beating this standard, you are probably paying more in management fees than if you just owned an index fund. Consistently beating the market over time is what ensures that you are not paying more in fees.

Setting Realistic Expectations

The personal investment site "Investing for Me" underscores the necessity of pinpointing a rate of return figure that is not just "good," but realistic, as well. For example, to expect a rate of return of 12 percent or more yearly may be setting yourself up for disappointment. To offer a comparison: figures produced by actuarial reports of large pension plans in fiscal 2018 barely cleared 9 percent. Pension plans, which are managed over the long term by experienced managers who must maintain realistic expectations in order to succeed, provide a general idea of what to expect from the market -- and your own investments.

ROR as a Function of Asset Class

Rates of return are calculated differently depending on the investment. For stocks, you compute an annual rate of return based on the annual dividend as a percentage of the price paid for the stock. A bond's annual rate of return would be the annual interest income over the bond's purchase price. Although rates of return often are compared across asset classes, investors who want to pinpoint "good" targets for a return are better off comparing apples to apples.

Different Types of ROR

Before pinpointing your desired rate of return, see that the ROR you have in mind is the same as the one touted by your investment company. The latter may cite an "average" rate of return, in which case you should determine whether that is the geometric or the arithmetic version, which can differ significantly.

"Total return" accounts for capital gains as well as dividend and interest income. Cumulative return is a similar concept for the total increase in value over a number of years. When you speak of rate of return, are you talking about nominal returns, which give the full return, including inflation, or real rate of return, which removes inflation? Make this clear before you make any comparison.