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The risk-free asset and the capital allocation line

4 May, 2015 - 12:20

The risk-free asset is the (hypothetical) asset which pays a risk-free rate. In practice, short-term government securities (such as US treasury bills) are used as a risk-free asset, because they pay a fixed rate of interest and have exceptionally low default risk. The risk-free asset has zero variance in returns (hence is risk-free); it is also uncorrelated with any other asset (by definition, since its variance is zero). As a result, when it is combined with any other asset or portfolio of assets, the change in return is linearly related to the change in risk as the proportions in the combination vary.

When a risk-free asset is introduced, the half-line shown in the figure is the new efficient frontier. It is tangent to the hyperbola at the pure risky portfolio with the highest Sharpe ratio. Its horizontal intercept represents a portfolio with 100% of holdings in the risk-free asset; the tangency with the hyperbola represents a portfolio with no risk-free holdings and 100% of assets held in the portfolio occurring at the tangency point; points between those points are portfolios containing positive amounts of both the risky tangency portfolio and the risk-free asset; and points on the half-line beyond the tangency point are leveraged portfolios involving negative holdings of the risk-free asset (the latter has been sold short—in other words, the investor has borrowed at the risk-free rate) and an amount invested in the tangency portfolio equal to more than 100% of the investor's initial capital. This efficient half-line is called the capital allocation line (CAL), and its formula can be shown to be

E(R_{C}) = R_F + \sigma_C \frac{E(R_P) - R_F}{\sigma_P}.

In this formula P is the sub-portfolio of risky assets at the tangency with the Markowitz bullet, F is the risk-free asset, and C is a combination of portfolios P and F.

By the diagram, the introduction of the risk-free asset as a possible component of the portfolio has improved the range of risk-expected return combinations available, because everywhere except at the tangency portfolio the half-line gives a higher expected return than the hyperbola does at every possible risk level. The fact that all points on the linear efficient locus can be achieved by a combination of holdings of the risk-free asset and the tangency portfolio is known as the one mutual fund theorem 1, where the mutual fund referred to is the tangency portfolio.