Equity Risk Premiums (ERP): Determinants, Estimation And Implications – The 2016 Edition

Aswath Damodaran

New York University – Stern School of Business

March 5, 2016

Abstract:

Equity risk premiums are a central component of every risk and return model in finance and are a key input in estimating costs of equity and capital in both corporate finance and valuation. Given their importance, it is surprising how haphazard the estimation of equity risk premiums remains in practice. We begin this paper by looking at the economic determinants of equity risk premiums, including investor risk aversion, information uncertainty and perceptions of macroeconomic risk. In the standard approach to estimating the equity risk premium, historical returns are used, with the difference in annual returns on stocks versus bonds over a long time period comprising the expected risk premium. We note the limitations of this approach, even in markets like the United States, which have long periods of historical data available, and its complete failure in emerging markets, where the historical data tends to be limited and volatile. We look at two other approaches to estimating equity risk premiums – the survey approach, where investors and managers are asked to assess the risk premium and the implied approach, where a forward-looking estimate of the premium is estimated using either current equity prices or risk premiums in non-equity markets. In the next section, we look at the relationship between the equity risk premium and risk premiums in the bond market (default spreads) and in real estate (cap rates) and how that relationship can be mined to generated expected equity risk premiums. We close the paper by examining why different approaches yield different values for the equity risk premium, and how to choose the “right” number to use in analysis.

Note: (This is the ninth edition of this paper, with the first one coming out during the 2008 market crisis, with annual updates every year since.)

Equity Risk Premiums (ERP): Determinants, Estimation And Implications – Introduction

The notion that risk matters, and that riskier investments should have higher expected returns than safer investments, to be considered good investments, is intuitive and central to risk and return models in finance. Thus, the expected return on any investment can be written as the sum of the riskfree rate and a risk premium to compensate for the risk. The disagreement, in both theoretical and practical terms, remains on how to measure the risk in an investment, and how to convert the risk measure into an expected return that compensates for risk. A central number in this debate is the premium that investors demand for investing in the ‘average risk’ equity investment (or for investing in equities as a class), i.e., the equity risk premium.

In this paper, we begin by examining competing risk and return models in finance and the role played by equity risk premiums in each of them. We argue that equity risk premiums are central components in every one of these models and consider what the determinants of these premiums might be. We follow up by looking at three approaches for estimating the equity risk premium in practice. The first is to survey investors or managers with the intent of finding out what they require as a premium for investing in equity as a class, relative to the riskfree rate. The second is to look at the premiums earned historically by investing in stocks, as opposed to riskfree investments. The third is to back out an equity risk premium from market prices today. We consider the pluses and minuses of each approach and how to choose between the very different numbers that may emerge from these approaches.

Equity Risk Premiums

Equity Risk Premiums: Importance and Determinants

Since the equity risk premium is a key component of every valuation, we should begin by looking at not only why it matters in the first place but also the factors that influence its level at any point in time and why that level changes over time. In this section, we look at the role played by equity risk premiums in corporate financial analysis, valuation and portfolio management, and then consider the determinants of equity risk premiums. Why does the equity risk premium matter?

The equity risk premium reflects fundamental judgments we make about how much risk we see in an economy/market and what price we attach to that risk. In the process, it affects the expected return on every risky investment and the value that we estimate for that investment. Consequently, it makes a difference in both how we allocate wealth across different asset classes and which specific assets or securities we invest in within each asset class.

A Price for Risk

To illustrate why the equity risk premium is the price attached to risk, consider an alternate (though unrealistic) world where investors are risk neutral. In this world, the value of an asset would be the present value of expected cash flows, discounted back at a risk free rate. The expected cash flows would capture the cash flows under all possible scenarios (good and bad) and there would be no risk adjustment needed. In the real world, investors are risk averse and will pay a lower price for risky cash flows than for riskless cash flows, with the same expected value. How much lower? That is where equity risk premiums come into play. In effect, the equity risk premium is the premium that investors demand for the average risk investment, and by extension, the discount that they apply to expected cash flows with average risk. When equity risk premiums rise, investors are charging a higher price for risk and will therefore pay lower prices for the same set of risky expected cash flows.

Equity Risk Premiums

Expected Returns and Discount Rates

Building on the theme that the equity risk premium is the price for taking risk, it is a key component into the expected return that we demand for a risky investment. This expected return, is a determinant of both the cost of equity and the cost of capital, essential inputs into corporate financial analysis and valuation.

While there are several competing risk and return models in finance, they all share some common assumptions about risk. First, they all define risk in terms of variance in actual returns around an expected return; thus, an investment is riskless when actual returns are always equal to the expected return. Second, they argue that risk has to be measured from the perspective of the marginal investor in an asset, and that this marginal investor is well diversified. Therefore, the argument goes, it is only the risk that an investment adds on to a diversified portfolio that should be measured and compensated. In fact, it is this view of risk that leads us to break the risk in any investment into two components. There is a firm-specific component that measures risk that relates only to that investment or to a few investments like it, and a market component that contains risk that affects a large subset or all investments. It is the latter risk that is not diversifiable and should be rewarded.

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