Beta (which is symbolized as β) is the incline of a straight line. Mathematicians would say the same thing another way, that beta is the slope of a regression line. Either way, β describes the tendency of investment returns to move with market returns. The investment is a security (e.g., stock, bond, mutual fund) that has a unit price. The market is a trading place for a large group of securities. The combined value of all securities is measured by a market index.
Trading causes security prices to change during the passage of time, a process called price movement. Calculations of β require price movements to be measured as percentage returns. In table 1, the daily closing prices of a security and its market index are listed under the column heading “close”. Percentage daily changes in closing price are listed under the column heading “Return %”. Equation 1 is the formula used to calculate a return:
Return % = 100 x (current price – past price) / past price (equation 1)
Notice in table 1 that all prices are a positive number and that the market’s close is bigger than the investment’s close. However, the calculated returns are positive and negative numbers of similar size. The positive and negative returns represent up and down movements of prices. Table 1 has 3 pairs of investment and market returns with corresponding dates.
β may be calculated directly from a table of returns, but it’s more meaningful to analyze a scatter plot of returns. The scatter plot in figure 1 has a solid blue line derived from 5 years of daily returns represented by more than a thousand black dots. Each dot has a pair of corresponding returns on each axis.
The blue line offers the single-best comparison of investment returns to market returns. The incline of the blue line is β, which is calculated as a ratio of the lengths AC and BC of the dashed lines. Since AC and BC have equal point spreads of 5%, β is 1.00, which means that the investment and its market TENDED to move together at the same rate of return.
Notice that the black dots are closely aligned to the blue line, therefore excluding the random movement of returns. Consequently, the blue line is highly predictive of this particular investment’s past performance.
β is a measurement that literally means for every percent of market return, the percent investment return TENDED to change by the factor of β. This is illustrated in figure 2.
The colored performance lines in figure 2 represent different investments. Each line offers the single-best comparison of investment returns to market returns. For the sake of graphic clarity, a large cluster of paired returns was not plotted as data points.
At β = 1.00 (black dashed line) the investment and market TENDED to move together at the same rate. At β >1.00 (yellow line), the investment performance was amplified by trading activity in the market. The yellow line’s β infers that the investment’s return was 1.72 times the market’s return. At β <1.00 (green line), the investment performance was diminished by market activity. The green line infers that the investment’s return was 0.86 times the market’s return. At β <0 (red line), the investment performance was reversed by market activity. The red line infers that the investment’s return was -3.86 times the market’s return.
Thus, β is a ‘pretend’ multiplier of market performance. Higher β ‘amplified’ the market performance, lower β ‘diminished’ the market performance, and negative β ‘reversed’ the market performance.
Risk is the chance for a capital gain and capital loss. Betas greater than 1.00 tend to be riskier investments and those lower than 1.00 tend to be safer investments compared to performance of the market. Negative β infers a reversal of investment outcomes compared to market outcomes.
Summary and advice
β is a statistic for past performance that describes the tendency of investment returns to move with market returns. When comparing the β of different investments, be sure to verify the time periods and market index used by the analyst. β is typically measured with weekly or monthly returns for the past 3-5 years.
Copyright © 2016 Douglas R. Knight