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Financial Economics

Prices, Returns, and Compounding

Financial economics involves returns; there are at least two reasons for focusing our attention on returns rather than on prices.
(1) The size of the investment does not affect price changes (returns) – the investment “technology” is constant-returns-to-
scale. (2) Returns have more attractive statistical properties than prices, such as stationarity, randomness and normality.
Definitions and Conventions: Simple net return: Rt   1 and Simple gross return = ? . The asset’s gross
Pt 1
return over the most recent k periods from data t-k to date t, written 1  Rt ( k ) , is simply equal to the product of the k
single-period returns from t-k +1 to t

1  Rt (k ) = (1  Rt ).(1  Rt 1 )  (1  Rt  k 1 )

Pt P P Pt
=  t 1    t  k 1 
Pt 1 Pt  2 Pt  k Pt  K

These multiperiod returns are called compound returns. Returns are a flow variable. A return of 20% is not a complete
description of the investment opportunity without specification of the return horizon.

Single-period returns are generally small in magnitude, the following approximation based on a first-order Taylor expansion
is often used to annualized multiyear returns:

1 k 1
Annualized[ Rt (k )]   Rt  j
k j 0
Multiyear returns are often annualized to make investments with different horizons comparable.

Continuous Compounding: the continuously compounded return or log return rt of an asset is defined to be the natural
logarithm of its gross return (1  Rt ) : -------------------------------

The multiperiod returns rt (k ) = log(1  R t (k )) = log[(1  R t ).(1  R t 1 )  (1  R t  k 1 )]

= -----------------------------------------------------------------
= ------------------------------------------------------------------

Advantage: compounding, a multiplicative operation, is converted to an additive operation by taking logarithms. Moreover,
it is far easier to derive the time-series properties of additive processes than of multiplicative processes.

Disadvantage: the simple return on a portfolio of assets is a weighted average of the simple returns on the assets themselves,
where the weight on each asset is the share of the portfolio’s value invested in the assets. If portfolio p places --------
R pt  i 1 wip Rit . Unfortunately continuously compounded returns do not share this convenient property. Since the log

of a sum is not the same as the sum of logs, r pt does not equal i 1
wit rit .

Dividend Payments: Denoted by Dt the asset’s dividend payments at date t and assume, purely, as a matter of convention,
that this dividend is paid just before the date-t price Pt, hence Pt is taken to be the ex-dividend price at date t. Then the net
Pt  Dt
simple return at date t may be defined as Rt  1
Pt 1

Excess Returns: it is defined as the difference between the asset’s returns and the return on some reference asset. The
reference asset is often assumed to be riskless and in practice is usually a short-term Treasury bill (T-bill) return. Simple
excess return on asset I is Z it  Rit  R ot where R ot is reference return.

The Marginal, Conditional, and Joint Distribution of Returns.

Joint Distribution: Consider a collection of N assets at date t, each with return Rit at date t, where t  1,..., T . Perhaps
the most general model of the collection of returns { R it } is its joint distribution function:
G ( R11 ,  , R N 1 ; R12 ,  , R N 2 ;  ; R1T ,  , R NT ; X |  ) where X is vector of state variables, variables that
summarize the economic (and social) environment in which asset returns are determined and  is a vector of fixed

The Conditional Distribution: The return from one asset depends on the return from another asset (s) or/and return from
the same assets in previous period (s). it can be expressed as follows:

F ( Rit , , RiT )  Fit ( Ri1 ).Fi 2 ( Ri 2 | Ri1 ).Fi 3 ( Ri 3 | Ri 2 , Ri1 )  FiT ( RiT | RiT 1 , , Ri1 )

One version of random-walk hypothesis is obtained by the restriction that the conditional distribution of returns R it is equal
to its marginal distribution, i.e., Fit ( Rit | .)  Fit ( Rit ) . If this is the case, then returns are temporally independent and
therefore unpredictable using past returns.

The Lognormal Distribution: Continuously compounded single-period returns rit are IID normal, which implies that
single-period gross simple returns are distributed as IID lognormal variates, since rit  log(1  Rit ) . We may express the
lognormal model then as rit ~ N (  i ,  i )

Under the lognormal model, if the mean and variance of rit are  i and  i respectively, then the mean and variance of

simple returns are given by

 i2 2 2

E[ Rit ]  e
ui 
and VAR [ Rit ]  e 2ui  i [e  i  1]

The lognormal model is not consistent with all the properties of historical stock returns. At short horizons, historical returns
show weak evidence of skewness and strong evidence of excess kurtosis.

The normal distribution has skewness equal to zero, as do all other symmetric distributions. The normal distribution has
kurtosis equal to three, but fat-tailed distributions with extra probability mass in the tail area have higher or even infinite
kurtosis. Skewness and kurtosis can be estimated in a sample of data by constructing the obvious sample averages:

The sample mean ̂ 
t 1

1 T
The sample variance  (et  ˆ ) 2
ˆ 2 
T t 1
1 T
3 
The sample skewness Sˆ  (e t  ˆ ) 3
Tˆ t 1
The sample kurtosis Kˆ 
Tˆ 4
 (e
t 1
t  ˆ ) 4

In large sample of normally distributed data, the estimators Ŝ and K̂ are normally distributed with means 0 and 3 and
variance 6/T and 24/T respectively. Since 3 is the kurtosis of the normal distribution, sample excess kurtosis defined to be
sample kurtosis less 3.