IRR Exposed: How the Internal Rate of Return Can Mislead Investors

Eric Wilson


April 3, 2023

4 min read

Eric Wilson


April 3, 2023

5 min read

The internal rate of return (IRR) is a frequently used financial metric by real estate investors. However, while this metric can provide valuable insights, relying on it blindly can lead to miscalculations and misjudgments. Today we're going to delve into the nuances of the IRR and discuss how it can potentially mislead investors.

The Internal Rate of Return: A Brief Overview

The IRR is the discount rate at which the net present value (NPV) of a series of cash flows equals zero.

Confused yet?

In simpler terms, it's the rate of return that would make an investment break even. It's often used to compare the profitability of different investments, with a higher IRR typically indicating a more profitable investment.

The Pitfalls of Relying Solely on IRR

While the IRR can be a useful tool for analyzing potential investments, it has limitations and can lead investors astray if not paired with other financial metrics.

1. Overemphasis on Time

The IRR heavily values the timing of cash flows. The sooner the cash flows are received, the higher the IRR will be. This means that investments with early returns can have high IRRs even if their total returns are not impressive. Investors focused on long-term wealth may be misled by a high IRR.

2. Ignoring the Size of Returns

The IRR does not take into account the total return or the size of the investment. It's possible for a small investment with a high IRR to yield less overall profit than a larger investment with a lower IRR. Therefore, comparing investments based on IRR alone could lead to incorrect conclusions.

3. Assumption of Reinvestment Rate

The IRR assumes that the cash flows can be reinvested at the same rate, which is often not the case in the real world. Especially in periods of fluctuating interest rates, this assumption can lead to overstated returns.

4. Multiple IRRs

In some cases, such as when an investment has alternating periods of positive and negative cash flows, there may be multiple IRRs. This can cause confusion and potentially lead to a misinterpretation of the investment’s profitability.

Balancing IRR with Other Metrics

Given these limitations, it’s critical that investors use the IRR in conjunction with other metrics to gain a more accurate picture of an investment’s potential.

The net present value (NPV) is a useful complement to the IRR, as it considers both the size of the cash flows and the time at which they are received. The equity multiple, which indicates how much an investor will receive compared to what they invested, is another helpful metric to consider.

Conclusion: A Tool, Not a Rule

While the IRR can be an insightful tool for assessing an investment, it shouldn't be the sole determinant of an investment’s potential. Investors should be aware of its limitations and use it as part of a suite of financial metrics. A balanced, comprehensive analysis will lead to better investment decisions and, ultimately, a more profitable real estate portfolio.