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Beating inflation versus hedging against inflation

Signs of higher inflation abound. Beating inflation to preserve spending power [1] is therefore high in many investors’ minds.

Bank of England chief economist Andy Haldane chimed in just this week, reports Reuters [2]:

“If wages and prices begin a game of leapfrog, we will get the sort of wage-price spiral familiar from the 1970s and 1980s,” Haldane said, adding that inflation would not be on the same scale as in those decades.

In an interview with LBC radio earlier on Wednesday, Haldane said inflation pressure in Britain was looking “pretty punchy”.

9 June 2021, Reuters

Of course, predictions of higher inflation rival England’s football team for hype [3] versus reality.

Surging inflation and English football glory have both been notably absent for many decades.

Inflation’s coming home

Indeed, one way to preserve the real value of your pound would have been to bet against England at every major tournament in my lifetime.

You’d probably have multiplied your initial stake nicely by betting that way – and reinvesting the proceeds each time.1 [4]

Betting against England might be a way of beating inflation.

However nobody sensible would say betting for or against England was a way of hedging against inflation.

While I haven’t earned a PhD crunching the numbers, England’s footballing performance surely has no correlation with inflation.

A sports team – and hence your bet – will win or lose irrespective of the inflation rate, in other words.

Whereas a hedge against inflation would be expected to protect against a decline in the spending power of your money due to rising prices.

Multiplying money via a wager – and so getting more spending power, beating inflation – doesn’t mean you actually hedged against inflation.

Beating inflation with a Banksy

So far so obvious – albeit dispiriting for England fans.

Yet the same confusion between beating inflation and hedging against inflation appears often in the investment world.

Right now asset managers are marketing their products as inflation hedges.

Here’s an advert I saw on Facebook under the banner: “Want a hedge against inflation? Invest in art today.”

Inflated expectations

Who wouldn’t want a 16,347% return over 13 years? Sign me up!

Actually, not so fast.

On these numbers, this (unnamed) piece of art would have been a fabulous investment.

But the advert tells us nothing about whether art is good for hedging against inflation, as opposed to beating inflation.

True, the 16,347% return equates to almost 50% a year on a simple annualized basis. Unless you’re getting clobbered hyperinflation, a 50% return a year will surely do a good job of beating inflation.

It would also turn anyone with a few paintings in their attic into multi-millionaires.

But I’m highly skeptical that anyone should expect a typical piece of art to go up in value near-50% a year over the next 13 years.

Annual returns around the 7-8% range from art [6] are more typical what I’ve seen touted [7].

Yet even if your art choice did so well, I’d congratulate you on your luck or a great eye – but not necessarily on your choice of an inflation hedge.

At least not just because its price went up a lot.

To view art as an inflation hedge, we’d need a thesis as to why art should hedge against inflation (easy – real assets tend to go up over time, with inflation) and data showing correlation (I’ve never seen that for art).

Equities have a record of beating inflation

What about shares? Many people – me included – tend to think of equities as protecting against inflation.

We have our reasons. Companies can lift prices in response to inflationary pressure. They often own real assets such as land and property. Over time profits and dividends can rise – in contrast to bonds with fixed coupons. All of this means share prices can rise in the face of higher inflation.

However the authors of the Credit Suisse Equity Yearbook [8] refute this notion.

The renowned academics divided equity and bond returns into buckets representing different inflationary regimes – from marked deflation through stable prices to very high inflation – as follows:

Source: Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh, and Mike Staunton, Credit Suisse EY 2021

Their work shows the return from bonds varies inversely with inflation. At times of deflation (left-hand side) bonds do very well. They get smashed by high inflation (right-hand side).

Equities do much better than bonds most of the time – the exception being times of extreme deflation.

But real returns from equities are negative with very high inflation, although they still beat bonds.

We can’t really call equities an inflation hedge then. Not when their real return falls with high inflation!

The professors note:

These results suggest that the correlation between real equity returns and inflation is negative.

i.e. equities have been a poor hedge against inflation.

There is extensive literature which backs this up. Fama and Schwert (1977), Fama (1981), and Boudoukh and Richardson (1993) are the three classic papers.

Credit Suisse Equity Yearbook, 2021

If this fact is so accepted in academic circles, why do we think of owning equities in the face of rising inflation?

It’s because the returns from equities have a strong record of beating inflation over the long-term.

Shares do not hedge against inflation. But the magnitude of their out-performance versus other assets means over many decades and cycles they’ve typically delivered the best returns, easily beating inflation.

What assets really hedge against inflation?

Generally you want to own real assets – ‘stuff’ – when inflation takes off, if you want to hedge against inflation.

After all, inflation in part expresses how the price of stuff is changing.2 [10]

The following from Bank of America (via Trustnet [11]) shows such correlations:

Source: Bank of America

Most things are positively correlated to inflation over the long-term.

Even cash! (That’s because interest rates tend to rise as inflation rises.)

The big exception is long-term government bonds. These are negatively correlated.

If inflation heads a lot higher then you’d look at returns from long-term bonds through your fingers. From behind the sofa.

Note the image shows correlations, not past or future returns.

The price of platinum is strongly positively correlated to inflation. That doesn’t mean platinum will necessarily be a brilliant investment.

Picking your poison in 2021

The best hedge against inflation are products designed for that purpose.

Index-linked government bonds, perhaps a basket of inflation-linked corporate bonds, or NS&I index-linked certificates [13].

However index-linked bonds are very expensive today. They are vulnerable [14] to interest rate rises.

Corporate bonds introduce credit risk.

As for NS&I certificates, they aren’t even available to new investors. They also pay a pathetically low [15] real return to those who already own them.

You’ll be hedged against inflation with NS&I index-linked certificates for sure. But you’re guaranteed to only just beat it…

Beyond that – and set against everything I’ve written above – I believe most of us should concentrate more on beating inflation than hedging against it. For a private investor with real world spending concerns, the long-term outcome is more important than the short-term correlations.

For most of us that means a healthy allocation to assets like equities and property – and crossing our fingers that we don’t face 20 years of stagflation. (You might want to own some gold [16] in case of that).

Given how strongly correlated bonds are to inflation – they will surely do badly when inflation is running hot – you could argue holding fewer [17] in a portfolio is also an effective way to dial down inflation risk [18].

However the more you reduce your government bonds, the more exposed you are to stock market falls – and also to deflation.

Beating inflation over the long-term

Finally, what do you know about inflation that the market doesn’t? It’s been constant media chatter for months now.

Someone [19] somewhere is always warning [20] of higher inflation.

I first saw that Bank of America forecasting imminent inflation – complete with an earlier version of its correlation image I included above – in the Financial Times [21] in 2016.

And before that, at the start of QE [22] I worried – like most people who didn’t work at the US Federal Reserve – about the inflationary consequences of monetary expansion.

Well it’s been 12 years and we’re still waiting!

Remember, if you’re working your income is likely to rise with inflation. Also if you own a house with a mortgage, over the medium-term inflation will probably push up prices while whittling down the real value of your debt.

Passive investors are probably best mostly sticking to a diversified portfolio, with a mix of assets aimed at beating inflation [23] over the long-term, while also guarding against other scenarios [24].

If you want to gamble, punt on your national football team!

  1. I’m assuming you’d earn a return on your stake between tournaments. And I haven’t done the maths! But given England hasn’t won anything since the 1960s I’m confident. [ [27]]
  2. The other part is changes in the price of services. [ [28]]