This is a simple question but I just wanted to be sure. Say I have an IRR of 5%. Does this mean that I have an actual return of (1.05)^3 - 1 = 15.7%?
Yes, if your IRR is 5% per annum after three years then the total return (I prefer total rather than your use of actual) over those three years is 15.76%.
Note that if you have other cashflows in and out, it gets a bit more complicated (e.g. using the
XIRR function in Excel), but the idea is to find an effective annual percentage return that you're getting for your money.
IRR is not subjective, this is a response to @Laythesmack, to his remark that IRR is subjective. Not that I feel a need to defend my position, but rather, I'm going to explain his.
My company offered stock at a 15% discount. We would have money withheld from pay, and twice per year buy at that discount. Coworkers said it was a 15% gain. I offered some math. I started by saying that 100/85 was 17.6%, and that was in fact, the gain. But, the funds were held by the company for an average of 3 months, not 6, so that gain occurred in 3 months and I did the math 1.176^4 and resulted in 91.5% annual return. This is IRR.
It's not that it's subjective, but it assumes the funds continue to be invested fully during the time. In our case the 91.5% was real in one sense, yet no one doubled their money in just over a year.
Was the 91% useless? Not quite. It simply meant to me that coworkers who didn't participate were overlooking the fact that if they borrowed money at a reasonable rate, they'd exceed that rate, especially for the fact that credit lines are charged day to day. Even if they borrowed that money on a credit card, they'd come out ahead.
IRR is a metric. It has no emotion, no personality, no goals. It's a number we can calculate. It's up to you to use it correctly.
IRR is subjective, if you could provide another metric instead of the IRR; then this would make sense. You can't spend IRR. For example, you purchase a property with a down payment; and the property provides cash-flow; you could show that your internal rate of return is 35%, but your actual rate of importance could be the RoR, or Cap Rate. I feel that IRR is very subjective. IRR is hardly looked at top MBA programs. It's studied, but other metrics are used, such as ROI, ROR, etc. IRR should be a tool that you visually compare to another metric. IRR can be very misleading, for example it's like the cash on cash return on an investment.