We almost always have some inflation, meaning wages and prices increase which helps job creation and economic growth. The absence of inflation is deflation, which means declining prices and could cause or worsen a recession as businesses lay off workers.
For years, we have had low inflation with relatively stable pricing, largely due to the Federal Reserve’s efforts. However, the low inflation levels could change as our economy rebounds from the pandemic. To find higher rates, you have to go back to 1990 when inflation was 6.1%. Double-digit inflation was more common in the 1970s, with its peak at 13.3% in 1979.
The Federal Reserve’s Monetary Policy’s Actions
The Federal Reserve has dual goals: maintaining relative pricing stability and sustainable economic growth with full employment. In the Great Recession and in March 2020, due to the pandemic-related economic downturn, the Fed steered towards accommodative monetary action to drop their fed funds rates to the lowest levels of zero-to 0.025% to stimulate the economy.
Chair Powell and the Fed intend to keep interest rates low through 2022 and have said they would be more tolerant of inflation rates that exceeded their 2% target. There is a reasonable possibility that we will see higher inflation soon.
Will The Fed Stick With Their Accommodative Policy?
Despite their intentions to stay with an accommodate policy, the Fed’s policy mandate is to adjust their stance to changing information. The 10-year Treasury note’s yield has been rising and could signal higher inflation expectations. The Fed has tools to combat high inflation such as raising interest rates.
It is not clear if the Fed will change gears but we can prepare ourselves. Should inflation increase to moderate levels above 2%, there are ways to protect ourselves from the potential erosion of our money. Moderate inflation may provide some benefits. You need some level of inflation to promote more spending.
Reasons Why We May See Higher Inflation
- The Fed intends to remain accommodative for a while, with lower rates and liquidity.
- A potential $1.9 trillion fiscal support for those businesses and households in need is on the table.
- The number of people getting vaccinated is rising, which may help boost the economy.
- We are saving more with the latest US personal savings rate remaining high at 13.7%, about twice the rate seen in 2019.
- Credit card balances at the end of 2020 reflect the largest yearly decline since 1999, reflects consumer spending is down.
These factors, if combined, may unleash consumer spending to kick up our economy and contribute to higher inflation. Offsetting these factors is high unemployment levels staying stubbornly high and may keep inflation low for now.
With low inflation, it has been difficult for anyone to earn any income in a low-yielding environment without taking on more investment risk. For investors with 60/40 retirement portfolios investing in stocks and bonds, respectively, some have shifted more significant proportion into stocks.
Investors will need to seek assets that are at least keeping pace with rising inflation. Holding cash in savings and checking accounts are suitable for liquidity purposes. However, their safety feature will diminish as their values erode with rising inflation. Later on, we have a list of investments that can protect you during a higher inflationary environment.
What Is Inflation And How Does It Affect Your Buying Power?
The definition of inflation is a steady rise in the general level of prices of goods and services. For example, a gallon of milk cost $1.57 in 1975 rising to $2.20 in 1985 as a result of high inflation in the 1970s to early 1980s. It now costs $3.61 in 2021. The changes in prices are due to inflation, not scarcity.
As a result of inflation, your purchasing power, the amount of goods and services that one’s income will buy, goes down. When prices rise, purchasing power declines, usually falling by the reciprocal amount of the price increase. Your paycheck may stay flat or go up more slowly, leaving you with less money. Union members may be an exception as they receive a cost of living wages as part of their contract.
Calculating of Inflation
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates inflation monthly using the consumer price index (CPI). The CPI is the best measurement of changes in prices of all goods and services purchased for consumption in urban households. This index tracks a market basket of food, transportation, housing, health care, and entertainment, broken down into over 400 subcategories bought by end-users.
The CPI is a cost of living index with a starting reference point from 1982-1984 as the base period of 100. The CPI for January 2021 was 261 reported on February 10, 2021, the cost of living would have risen 161% since the base period [(261-100)/100= 1.61 of 161%]. If car prices rose 15% over the past five years, you may be paying $34,500 for a car that had cost $30,000 ($30,000 x 1.15%).
Economists tend to look at sequential (quarter-quarter) or year-to-year changes in the CPI. The most recent sequential rise in January increased by 0.3%, and up 1.4% since a year ago. These price increases confirm the low inflation we have had since the Great Recession began in 2007.
The Purchase Pricing Index, or PPI, is similar to the CPI but measures wholesale prices from raw material through the production stages. When PPI rises, the higher costs often are passed on to consumers.
Low inflation has stymied returns from the low inflation environment from low-risk income-based investment portfolios as we discussed here..
What Contributes To Inflation?
There are various factors that may influence inflation.
Demand-pull inflation occurs when total demand for goods and services in an economy outpaces supply. In the early 1970s, a strong economy caused oil prices to rise and pushed up inflation to 12% in 1974. Strong consumer demand for goods and services could result in higher spending leading to higher inflation.
Increase In Production Costs
A different way of rising prices than demand-pull can come from increases in production costs without higher demand is known as cost-push inflation. Higher production costs can come through increased wages, raw materials, depletion of natural resources, droughts, or higher taxes. Businesses are not always able to pass these higher costs onto consumers.
There have been conflicting views on whether raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour would cause inflation. One side of the argument points to wage hikes which have been slow to come for many employees, and therefore, increases are overdue. Wage growth often leads to a more robust economy.
However, the pandemic-related recession has caused high unemployment that has crippled many small businesses. Many believe that we should have an improved economy and higher employment before raising wages.
Natural Disaster Shortages
Prices can rise when shortages in goods and services associated with natural disasters such as severe weather conditions, droughts, floods, fires, or avian flu. These disasters impact manufacturing plants, businesses, and residential areas. These unpredictable events may put temporary or long-term pressures on the production of goods, causing inflation due to scarcity.
In 2010, British Petroleum’s oil spill was the largest marine disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, causing higher gas and seafood prices. This area accounted for one-third of all seafood consumed in the US. About 40% of the Gulf waters needed to be closed to commercial and recreational fishing due to the spill.
The US budget deficit has been rising from already high levels since the pandemic to counter the economic downturn. A government budget deficit occurs when expenses outpace revenues, not unlike the household budget.
Multiple fiscal stimulus packages related to hardships caused by the pandemic have been essential to provide funds to businesses and unemployed workers. This boost to government spending has required the US Treasury to raise capital and increase money creation by printing money. Both US Treasury and the Federal Reserve have increased money supply to increase liquidity and keep the financial markets calm, but a higher money supply typically leads to higher inflation.
Higher Prices From Higher Demand Post-Pandemic
Many businesses lost revenues during the pandemic because of social distancing needs. As more people are vaccinated, our economy may rebound from strong demand in travel, entertainment, dining out, and going about life more normally. We may see some prices go up with increased demand and pressure to recoup lost revenues.
Different Kinds of Inflation
The various forms of inflation that are most worrisome are stagflation, deflation, and hyperinflation.
Deflation is when there is an overall decrease in the cost of the economy’s goods and services. When price declines are minimal, consumers may spend more. When deflation is more pronounced, we may demand less, expecting more price declines. Businesses, anticipating lower spending, will cut production to prevent swelling inventories, and layoffs may result.
This deflationary scenario is considered the opposite of inflation and its evil twin. The Federal Reserve uses a 2% inflation target as part of its monetary policy, preferring low inflation to deflation. Deflation can send an economy into a recession or a worse downturn, causing layoffs.
Stagflation refers to a stagnant economy reflected in high unemployment and high inflation simultaneously. This problematic situation, spurred by an oil shock, lasted from the early 1970s into the early 1980s and was challenging to resolve.
Hyperinflation has not been around for a while. The closest the US experienced hyperinflation was during the Civil War, and I think that is where everyone wants to see it, that is, in history. Between 1921 and 1923, the Weimar Republic, Germany’s government, experienced hyperinflation rising over 300%!
Relationship Between Inflation And Interest Rates
Inflation and interest rates are not the same thing, but they relate to each other. There is a tendency for interest rates and inflation to have an inverse relationship. When interest rates are low, it stimulates economic activity, and inflation rises. But, when interest rates are high, consumers slow spending, the economy slows, and inflation declines. It takes time for the economic changes to take place.
Investing For Protection From Inflation
As an investor, you should have a better understanding of inflation so that you can protect yourself from its effects. Some investments keep better pace with rising inflation than others. Real or physical assets often appreciate at or faster than inflation, and can provide better returns for investors. It is helpful when investing to understand the economy as we discuss here.
Money Market Securities
Cash and cash-equivalent securities make poor investments in a low-yielding environment. However, when inflation rises, the annual percentage yield (APY) will increase. Seniors have been clamoring for 5% CD yields which do not currently exist. Should inflation rise to higher levels, having cash to investing in money market accounts that are FDIC-insured will be a desirable place.
Build CD Ladders
The six-month CD rate hit a high of over 17% in March 1980 when inflation was 14.8%. I don’t think anyone wants to see inflation reach those levels or expects inflation of that magnitude. However, you can build a CD ladder to take advantage of rising APYs offered by the banks and credit unions.
You can start with short-term periods such as three or six-month CDs as inflation rises, lengthening their maturities as high inflation stabilizes, locking in nice returns. CDs are a less risky way to earn higher returns, especially if inflation is over 5%.
TIPS And Other inflation-indexed Bonds
Currently, bonds at fixed rates do not yield meaningful returns. However, bonds with variable rates are worthwhile investments in rising inflationary environments.
Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, or TIPS, are issued and backed by the full faith of the US Government. They are considered the safest security, most liquid, and rated AAA for the highest quality. Holders receive interest income twice per year at a fixed rate. These securities are an excellent way to diversify your portfolio for the least risk among other inflation hedges.
As inflation-protected securities, TIPs provide investors with a guaranteed real rate of return. The principal of TIPS increases with inflation and decreases with deflation measured by the CPI. At maturity, you are either paid the adjusted or original principal, whichever is greater. Like all Treasury securities, TIPs are exempt from state and local taxes.
Municipal Inflation-Linked Bonds
Like TIPS, investors can buy municipal (munis) inflation-linked securities that track CPI and adjust the bond’s principal. These securities can keep pace with inflation better than a municipal bond without this feature.
Compared to TIPS, munis do not have backing from the federal government, are less liquid, and its ratings vary by municipality. Funding purposes are to build roads, schools, airports, or infrastructure projects. To offset its higher risks, holders of muni bonds are tax-exempt from federal income taxes.
Corporate Inflation-Linked Bonds
Corporate bonds may have inflation-linked features, similar to the other bonds, adjusting to the CPI changes to better pace with higher prices. These securities tend to have higher risks that vary by the quality of the corporation. These bonds are less liquid than Treasury securities (every investment is!) and don’t have any tax-exemption benefits for their holders like Treasuries or municipal securities.
Variable-rate bonds have floating interest rates for coupon payments. Municipal and corporate bonds may have this variable feature that is adjusted to the current money market rate for their interest rate.
Gold is an inflation hedge and offers diversification for any investment portfolio. As a physical asset, gold is in limited supply. Central banks own gold in their portfolios as part of their foreign exchange reserves.
Gold prices were up 25% in 2020, among the best-performing assets. You can buy gold in its physical form as bars or coins. Typically, gold doesn’t pay dividends. However, some gold mining stocks pay dividends (e.g., Newmont and Barrick) individually, as gold miner ETFs or SPDR Gold Shares or GLD, the bullion is in a fund.
Silver is an inflation hedge with a lower price point, attractive for retail investors.
Commodities are not just pork bellies. As an inflation hedge, it is a broad group with many different products you earn and store. There are three main categories:
- Agriculture commodities include food, meat, timber, and cotton.
- Energy has crude oil and its refined products.
- Metals categories are largely precious metals and industrial metals.
As the price of the commodity rises, the product that contains the commodity will likely rise. When aluminum or steel prices rise, manufacturers may pass on the higher costs to consumers.
Real Estate Investment Trust or REITs
Real estate property makes excellent investments when inflation rises, but it may require work to maintain. A REIT is a company that owns and operates income-producing real estate. There are many different REITs for equity, retail mortgage, health care or hospitals, and data storage, providing diversification for any portfolio.
They generate stable income from above-average dividend yields. That’s because REITs are required to distribute at least 90% of their taxable income to shareholders annually.
Stocks, as an asset class, have historically provided returns that beat inflation. They are a sturdy investment for the 60/40 investment portfolio, with inflation-indexed bonds likely to do better when there is higher inflation.
Certain sectors may perform better than others. Energy stocks, much like the commodity itself, are often inflation hedges. Financial stocks earn better income margins on loans in times of inflation, and healthcare insurers have performed better when higher inflation appears.
We already mentioned REITs and gold stocks as a worthy area to invest in if inflation rises. Let’s add Dividend Aristocrat companies for inflation protection. They are represented by stocks that raise their dividends consistently for at least 25 consecutive years. There are different stocks in various sectors and are available as ETFs.
Another way to invest in stocks is to buy the S&P 500 index as a fund or ETF for inflation protection and diversification. If you choose to purchase stocks individually or as a sector, you may want to avoid utilities, consumer discretionary stocks, or companies with debt-laden balance sheets, like United Rentals.
Many are suggesting that higher inflation is on the horizon over the next few years. That may be as we haven’t had meaningful inflation since 1991. Higher inflation, so long as we don’t have stagflation or hyperinflation, is manageable. There are several investments that are attractive as inflation hedges for protection.
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With a passion for investing and personal finance, I began The Cents of Money to help and teach others. My experience as an equity analyst, professor, and mom provide me with unique insights about money and wealth creation and a desire to share with you.