Measure of risk-adjusted performance. Some refer to the alpha as the difference between the investment return and the benchmark return. However, this does not properly adjust for risk. More appropriately, an alpha is generated by regressing the security or mutual fund's excess return on the benchmark (for example S&P 500) excess return. The beta adjusts for the risk (the slope coefficient). The alpha is the intercept. Example: Suppose the mutual fund has a return of 25%, and the short-term interest rate is 5% (excess return is 20%). During the same time the market excess return is 9%. Suppose the beta of the mutual fund is 2.0 (twice as risky as the S&P 500). The expected excess return given the risk is 2 x 9%=18%. The actual excess return is 20%. Hence, the alpha is 2% or 200 basis points. Alpha is also known as the Jensen Index. The alpha depends on the benchmark used. For example, it may be the intercept in a multifactor model that includes risk factors in addition to the S&P 500. Related: Risk-adjusted return.
Copyright © 2011 Campbell R. Harvey, Professor of Finance, Fuqua School of Business at Duke University