The formula for the beta of an asset within a portfolio is
where ra measures the rate of return of the asset, rp measures the rate of return of the portfolio, and Cov(ra,rp) is the covariance between the rates of return. In the CAPM formulation, the portfolio is the market portfolio that contains all risky assets, and so the rp terms in the formula are replaced by rm, the rate of return of the market.
Beta is also referred to as financial elasticity or correlated relative volatility, and can be referred to as a measure of the sensitivity of the asset's returns to market returns, its non-diversifiable risk, its systematic risk or market risk. On an individual asset level, measuring beta can give clues to volatility and liquidity in the marketplace. On a portfolio level, measuring beta is thought to separate a manager's skill from his or her willingness to take risk.
The beta coefficient was born out of linear regression analysis. It is linked to a regression analysis of the returns of a portfolio (such as a stock index) (x-axis) in a specific period versus the returns of an individual asset (y-axis) in a specific year. The regression line is then called the Security Characteristic Line (SCL).
For an example, in a year where the broad market or benchmark index returns 25% above the risk free rate, suppose two managers gain 50% above the risk free rate. Since this higher return is theoretically possible merely by taking a leveraged position in the broad market to double the beta so it is exactly 2.0, we would expect a skilled portfolio manager to have built the outperforming portfolio with a beta somewhat less than 2, such that the excess return not explained by the beta is positive. If one of the managers' portfolios has an average beta of 3.0, and the other's has a beta of only 1.5, then the CAPM simply states that the extra return of the first manager is not sufficient to compensate us for that manager's risk, whereas the second manager has done more than expected given the risk. Whether investors can expect the second manager to duplicate that performance in future periods is of course a different question.