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The size of the equity risk premium—the incremental return that shareholders require to hold risky equities rather than risk-free securities—is a key issue in corporate finance. Financial economists generally measure the equity premium over long periods of time in order to obtain reliable estimates. These estimates are widely used by investors, finance professionals, corporate executives, regulators, lawyers, and consultants. But because the 20th century proved to be a period of such remarkable growth in the U.S. economy, estimates of the risk premium that rely on past market performance may be too high to serve as a reliable guide to the future.

The authors analyze a 103-year history of risk premiums in 16 countries and conclude that the U.S. risk premium relative to Treasury bills was 5.3% for that period—lower than previous studies suggest—as compared to 4.2% for the U.K. and 4.5% for a world index. But the article goes on to observe that the historical record may still overstate expectations of the future risk premium, partly because market volatility in the future may be lower than in the past, and partly because of a general decline in risk resulting from new technological advances and increased diversification opportunities for investors. After adjusting for the expected impact of these factors, the authors calculate forward-looking equity risk premiums of 4.3% for the U.S., 3.9% for the U.K., and 3.5% for the world index. At the same time, however, they caution that the risk premium can fluctuate over time and that managers should make appropriate adjustments when there are compelling economic reasons to think that expected premiums are unusually high or low.