What is more important, getting the most return, or not losing anything? For many, getting the highest possible return is their biggest goal. They obsess over return. But higher returns equals more risk. And more risk has a hidden villain – geometric return. Or more correctly termed in statistician land – geometric mean. What is that?

Geometric Mean

According to Wikipedia, Geometric Mean is a type of mean or average,…similar to the arithmetic mean, which is what most people think of with the word “average”, except that… the geometric mean of a data set is less than or equal to the data set’s arithmetic mean, unless you are using the same data set.

Translation = Actual Returns May Differ from Average Returns.

Geometric Example

I first ran into Geometric Mean or Return when talking to another advisor. We agreed that if a $100,000 portfolio went down 50% one year to $50,000, it would take a 100% return ($50,000) the next to get back to even. The total return over those two years would be 50%. (-50% + 100% = 50%) The average return over the two years would be 25%. (50% / 2 ) But clearly, the investor has only gotten back to even. His actual gain is zip.

Let’s apply this to more realistic investment returns. Here are two 4 year average return scenarios.

Bond $100,000 Equity $100,000
Year Returns Investment Returns Investment
1 5% $105,000 30% $130,000
2 5% $110,250 -50% $65,000
3 5% $115,763 50% $97,500
4 5% $121,551 -10% $87,750
Total 20% Total 20%


The Results

Both return series total 20%. Over 4 years they average 5% per year. But their actual return tells a different story. Actual investment results differ because of the volatility of the portfolios. The bonds made $21,551, while stocks lost $12,250 ending with $87,750.

Actual return on the bonds were 21.55%, 1.55% more than the 20% total return. The extra 1.55% was due to the compounding of return.  The actual return of the stocks was -12.25%, averaging negative 3.05% per year.

The problem is that in the long run, bond returns do not keep up with inflation. We know we need stocks in our portfolio in order to keep up with inflation. Most of us also need higher than bond returns to achieve our goals. So how do we invest in stocks to keep pace with inflation while minimizing risk?

Asset Allocation

Asset allocation is a combination of stocks, bonds, and cash that can help take extreme peaks and valleys out of your returns.  Let’s look at returns without the peaks and valleys.

Allocation $100,000
Year Returns Investment
1 25% $125,000
2 -25% $93,750
3 25% $117,188
4 -5% $111,328


The average return is still 20%, or 5% per year. But less volatility produced a total return of 11.32% or 2.83% a year.

How does this apply to your retirement?

By looking at a series of returns applied to your actual portfolio over time, you get a more clear picture or your likelihood of success. Unfortunately, most online calculators that many do-it-yourself investors are using only use average returns. They don’t account for geometric “actual” returns.

As advisors, we have access to the Monte Carlo Analysis. Monte Carlo analysis runs not 1, but 1,000 series of returns on your portfolio based on historical or projected returns. This gives you a more clear picture as to your likelihood of success given your investment allocation. It also shows you the impact of reduced volatility on a portfolio as you shift investments from stocks to bonds to find the right mix.


You may not have bragging rights for the biggest returns at the company social with a lower risk, less volatile portfolio, but your long-term results may be better off. Remember that there are no guarantees when investing in the stock market. Historical returns are not indicative of future returns.

Rich Feight, CFP
Rich Feight, CFP

Hi, I'm Rich Feight I'm a fee-only Certified Financial Planner, successful business owner, and self-made millionaire that knows how to beat the system and become wealthy. I have a lot of clients that have done it too. I'm also pretty good at finding that ever-elusive work/life balance so many of us strive for. Lucky for you I have an abundant mindset and give all my knowledge away on my blog. So if you want to know what it takes to become a millionaire, follow me.

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