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The Equity Premium Puzzle
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Definition of The Equity Premium Puzzle: Real returns to investors from the purchases of U.S. government bonds have been estimated at one percent per year, while real returns from stock ("equity") in U.S. companies have been estimated at seven percent per year (Kocherlakota, 1996). General utility-based theories of asset prices have difficulty explaining (or fitting, empirically) why the first rate is so low and the second rate so high, not only in the U.S. but in other countries too. The phrase equity premium puzzle comes from the framing of this problem (why is the difference so great?) and the attention focused on it by Mehra and Prescott (1985); sometimes the phrase risk free rate puzzle is used to describe the closely related question: why is the bonds rate so low? The problem can be inverted to ask: why do investors not reject the low-returning bonds in order to buy stocks, which would then raise the price of stocks and lower their subsequent returns?

The above is drawn from the excellent review by Kocherlakota (1996) which surveys the substantial literature on this subject. Abbreviating further from it: the theories against which the evidence constitute a "puzzle" (or paradox) tend to have these aspects in common:

  1. Standard preferences described by standard utility functions
  2. Contractually complete asset markets (against possible time- and state-of-the-world contingencies)
  3. Costless asset trading (in terms of taxes, trading fees, and presumably information).
Overwhelmingly the discussion in the economics literature has focused on expansions to the formal theory and on refinements and expansions of data sources, rather than survey evidence. A survey of U.S. households would answer (has answered?) the question of why they invest so little in stocks.

[Editorial comment follows.] It is likely (but this is conjecture) that large fractions of the population do not seriously consider investing in stocks, and are thus not rejecting stocks because their returns are low, but rather because they do not know how and think there are some barriers to learning how; and/or they perceive the risks of stocks to be higher than they have historically been; and/or they believe their savings are insufficient to invest. These explanations suggest that as stock trading becomes easier (e.g. over the Web, with heavy marketing and easy interfaces) the theories will fit better because more of the population will buy stocks. Indeed, this has been observed over the last few years. Another class of likely explanations is that people are highly impatient to spend their income (which would conflict with standard constant-discount-rate utility functions, but agree with the evidence; see hyperbolic discounting). Seen this way, the puzzle is not why the evidence looks the way it does, but the hard theoretical problem of getting these factors into the asset pricing models. (Econterms)

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