Will Runaway Inflation Derail The Recovery?

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This past year has been a pretty bleak news year. Day after day we’ve all been inundated with scary headlines that basically boiled down to “Are we all going to die horribly today?” Thankfully, those days are starting to recede into the rearview mirror. The world’s biggest vaccination campaign in history is in full swing, California and New York just declared their economies open again, and here in Ontario we can now enjoy a drink on a patio without being tased by the po-po. Progress!

So, in a way, it’s kind of nice to see the news go back to its regularly scheduled programming of dutifully explaining to us why we’re all screwed for reasons other than a deadly virus.

Consumer prices for May accelerated at their fastest pace in nearly 13 years as inflation pressures continued to build in the U.S. economy, the Labor Department reported Thursday.


Consumer prices jump 5% in May, fastest pace since the summer of 2008: CNBC

Statistics Canada said the 3.6-per-cent increase in the consumer price index in May was the largest yearly increase since May 2011.

Annual inflation rate climbs to 3.6 per cent in May, highest in a decade: CTV

Hoo mama. Looks like all that money printing central banks did last year is coming home to roost.

Now, just to be clear, inflation is not necessarily a bad thing. To little and the economy seizes up, but too much can cause a recession, and seeing as how we are just getting out of one once-in-a-generation disaster, I don’t think anyone wants to deal with a recession on top of everything right now.

So let’s dive into these headlines and see what’s going on. Why is too-high inflation bad, what’s causing this higher-than-normal inflation that we’re seeing, and most importantly, is it time to panic, bash each other’s heads in and feast on the goo inside?

How Inflation Causes Recessions

Inflation is a broad measure of how much the cost of goods change year over year, and can be tricky to get right. If inflation is too low (or worse, negative), then you get into a situation where people stop spending money. In a deflationary environment, things cost just a little less tomorrow than they do today, so when that happens people hoard cash and delay their purchasing decisions, which leads to a recession because people aren’t spending money and businesses aren’t making a profit. This famously happened recently in Japan over the last few decades.

Hyper-inflation, where inflation is running at greater than 50% per month, is also really bad. In this situation, the price of goods is rising so much that people can’t spend money fast enough, which might seem like a good thing at first but hyper-inflation is also indicative of a complete loss of trust in your country’s currency. Think 1920’s Germany or modern-day Venezuela.

So for that reason, a little bit of inflation is good, but too little or too much hurts the economy. Central banks have a mandate to keep long-term inflation within a target range of 1% to 3%, and have the ability to stimulate or cool down the economy to do it by raising or lowering interest rates.

Here’s the problem: If inflation is too high, it’ll force central banks to raise interest rates. And if that inflation stubbornly refuses to come back down, they’ll have to raise it even more. And if they panic and raise interest rates too much, that might cause a recession.

Remember: Benchmark interest rates affect everything. Savings accounts, bond yields, your mortgage, and corporate debt. All of it goes up when that happens. And while you might be thinking that if your mortgage rate goes up half a percent at renewal, that might not be so bad. But if it goes up a full percentage point? Or five? Bad things will happen.

Hence, the panic that happens on financial markets if central bankers even hint at thinking about thinking about maybe considering raising interest rates sooner than expected. It happened on Friday, when an errant remark from St. Louis Federal Reserve president James Bullard on CNBC sent the Dow plummeting 500 points.

What’s Causing Inflation?

So the big million dollar question is: What’s causing the inflation we’re seeing?

On the surface, the answer would be obvious: All the money central banks printed, all the stimulus that got sent out, and a shuttered economy would naturally produce eye-popping inflation. Printing money and throwing it at a shrinking economy is a classic way to manufacture hyper-inflation, after all.

Here’s the problem: the economy is no longer shuttered. US GDP compared to the beginning of 2019 has basically recovered. Over memorial day weekend, airlines were running at almost 90% of their pre-pandemic levels. The US is not 1920’s Germany, because unlike 1920’s Germany, they just fought a war with COVID, and for all intents and purposes, they won.

Source: US GDP data from the Federal Reserve

What makes current inflation measurements so unclear is that they’re currently clouded by temporary effects that are making them seem worse than they are. For starters, the inflation figures quoted by the media are annual changes, meaning that the baseline they’re comparing to is 12 months ago, when the economy was well and truly shut off.

2020 was a really crazy year. Remember, not only was half the economy prevented from opening, there were crazy things happening on the financial markets that had never happened before. Tourism had been shut off around the globe, rents in downtown cores were cratering due to the AirBnb’s being converted into long term rentals, and for a brief, glorious, extremely confusing day, oil prices turned negative.

So of course if you compare prices to 12 months ago things are going to seem dire. In fact, if you look at the raw CPI price data from the Federal Reserve, you can clearly see that in a May 2021-to-May 2020 comparison, you would be comparing today’s prices to the absolute lowest point on the CPI chart.

Source: CPI data from the Federal Reserve

If you were to instead compare it to the beginning of the year right before the pandemic hit, you would see that prices are higher, but by only 3.7% rather than 5%. 3.7% is a little hot, but it’s not exactly the panic territory that the media is making it seem.

And the second reason that this number is likely overblown is that there are supply chain issues affecting prices that will eventually go away. Remember, the pandemic caused economic activity to stop in most industries that weren’t deemed essential. Now, all of a sudden, people are being unleashed back into the world with stores suddenly reopening. Retailers can’t keep up with the sudden increased demand for cars, plywood, and refrigerators. So of course prices are going to go up.

But supply chains will adjust, as they always do. Factories will reopen, workers will get rehired, and industrial output will once again spin up. When that happens, supply will rise to meet demand, moderating prices.

How Should We Invest?

Now, all this isn’t to say that the reports of higher than normal inflation is made up. The effect is real, but I’d argue that the effect is far more muted than the numbers would suggest. There are temporary effects that are causing inflation to appear worse than it actually is, but these effects are just that: temporary. We are in an inflationary environment, but I don’t think it’s as bad as these scary headlines make it appear.

So how do we position our investments for an inflationary environment? Well, I think we all know the answer to that: Bitcoin.

No no, I’m kidding. Don’t put all your money into Bitcoin.

The real answer is: Equities.

Specifically, the equities tracked by the very same broad-based index funds that we recommend in our Investment Workshop and we are personally invested in.

In a hyper-inflationary environment where the value of the currency itself is under attack, you want to move your money into an alternative form of wealth, like gold or diamonds. But we are not in a hyper-inflationary environment. We are in a plain old inflationary environment, and in that situation equities will benefit. As the price of goods increases, businesses will be able to charge more. As businesses charge more, they will make more profit. And as they make more profit, their stock prices (and dividends) will increase. Hence, equities is where it’s at in a situation like this.

Fixed income, on the other hand, is another story. In an inflationary, low-interest environment, fixed income is going to suck for a while. Especially since in the event that interest rates rise, those holding longer-duration traditional bonds are going to get screwed since bond prices go in the opposite direction of interest rates.

However, we do have a few tricks up our sleeves. I wrote about them here, so check that article out first. In the interest of full transparency, in our personal portfolio, I’ve moved our Portfolio B fixed income allocation to Preferred Shares (ZPR) and our Portfolio A fixed income to a Short-Duration Bond Index ETF (ZSB). Both asset classes are better in a rising interest rate environment than a traditional bond ETF, and to learn more about why check out the article I mentioned earlier.

Conclusion

So to conclude, so far I don’t think inflation has entered runaway territory, and as a result I don’t think it will derail our economic recovery. That being said, inflation is going to run hot for at least a few months, and an interest rate increase is definitely on the horizon. So we are going to invest accordingly and we think you should too.

What do you think? Do you think all this money printing will screw us all, or do you think everything will be fine? Are you planning on making any changes to your portfolio? Let’s hear it in the comments below!


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15 thoughts on “Will Runaway Inflation Derail The Recovery?”

  1. Well put and good timing for this post. The panic-inducing headlines in the news every day are making the situation and fear levels worse than they need to be. Yes, the governments need to ideally keep a close eye on inflation to prevent another recession, but it’s important to stay the course and not panic sell or buy.

    To your point, when prices rise, someone is getting paid more to do or make the things they were making before… which means investing in good businesses (i.e. equities) are a good bet. That’s where most of our money is going these days. Even if the market is technically overpriced, history suggests that even bad timing can be fixed by time in the market.

  2. Thank you for this post. I was waiting to hear your guys’ opinions on the recent news on inflation!

    We have been extremely happy with the return of our portfolio since we left our job to become full-time slow travelers! (can’t believe it has already 3 years ago!) and we are not going to increase our current equities allocation. We might consider more real estate though…

    What would you guys be doing if we enter a real inflationary environment in the next few months?

  3. I’ve got a huge home boner (your words not mine) and my interest rate is 3.4% locked in for 17 months. I’m hoping the rate doesn’t spike before my term expires, what do you think? Breaking it now incurs a huge penalty up until 3 months before the term is up. Thank you in advance.

  4. Once prices rise that becomes the ‘new normal’ and they will not go back down. High prices are here to stay.

  5. I’m going to scrape together every dollar I can find, and invest it in equity index funds. As far as I can tell, we’re at the start of a period of growth, and I want to ride that pony!

  6. Enjoyed the article. As Charlie Munger recently said we are in Uncharted Territory with the money printing game. Nobody knows where this will go.

    2. CPI does not include housing food or gasoline. (?)

    3. Studies have been done that prove jumping in and out of the market you lose money over the long term. Just leave it in a broad market index fund and leave it alone. Just my two cents.

  7. I think the data is too preliminary to conclude whether the inflation we have is really that big of a deal. I mean, oil prices went from negative to positive. It would be weird if inflation DIDN’T happen.

    I think the next inflation data is what’s actually going to matter whether inflation actually matters or not. Only time will tell!

  8. Seriously considering…

    Currently looking into and debating whether/when we should also be moving all our traditional bonds (ZAG) to the suggested Short-Term Bonds (thinking XSH vs VSB) but still doing some research seeing XSH is a “corporate + maple” bonds ETF.

    The family did initially set-up a 70/30 allocation to jumpstart our early retirement plans (hoping to be nomadic next year in 2022 post pandemic) but broken down the 30% into equal split between 50% traditional bonds (ZAG) and 50% preferred shares (XPF).

    We strategically actioned this split configuration primarily in anticipation of a potential inflationary interest rate hike post pandemic, and taking advantage of the higher yield and equity growth of preferred shares. That said, we also do NOT want to lose out on the “stabilizer” component of our portfolio being the traditional bonds. Do note, this would equate to a $250k transaction “shift” from traditional to short-term but in doing so, the duration period would effectively reduce from 8+ years down to less than 3 years.

    @Wanderer, am I missing anything in my understanding and interpretation?!?

    TIA for your feedback and input,

    ImmigrantOnFIRE

  9. Once prices go up, they never recede. This is the rule. Forget about “temporary”. It’s permanent !

  10. Haha, I loved the bitcoin line!

    I enjoyed the discussion points you touched on, and don’t think that inflation is going to runaway from the Fed.

    That being said, I am still concerned about the additional 1 trillion dollar infrastructure bill that passed and the need to spend such large sums without ever tackling the debt we owe. We certainly don’t have a spending problem here in the US!

  11. I think inflation will be a bigger problem than people think.

    2 elements are underestimated :
    1 – oil prices were low during the pandemic, much of the prices increases were offset by the lower cost of fuel (transportation). That will not be the case going forward.
    2 – Many companies were reluctant to increase prices. But as we move forward, most of them will not have choice but to increase their prices.

    I agree with your solution : invest in equities and avoid bonds. Gold, commodities and REITs should do particularly well.

    My portfolio is : 6.5% Gold (miners), 5% Oil and 3.5% REITs. 100% equities. I have switched to 50% Canadian stocks and 35% US stocks, mainly because the US stock market is too high right now (was 50% US and 35% Canada before the pandemic). I don’t own any bonds and I have almost 0% cash.

    I think you will be fine with your portfolio allocation. The Canadian stock market (TSX) contain more gold and oil than you think.

    The only think I don’t agree in your investment plan is to not own a house. With interest rates so low and with higher inflation in the future, it’s basically “free” to own a house..
    With a 300K$ house financed with a reasonable 100K$ mortgage at 0.99% at HSBC (this is their variable rates, but the best is to get a longer term and costlier fixed rate), it only takes 200K$ of capital and costs only 1K$ interests per year and a few thousands for the maintenance. If the house increase in price over – let say – 10 years, that means the houses basically “paid for itself”.

    Shelter is a necessity, so knowing you own a place where you can go if everything else goes wrong can be reassuring. For people who travel a lot, this could be in a location you use as a “base” (ie. near favorite travel locations and easy to leave empty for a few months or years).
    I would agree to keep this expense at the lowest possible level. House splurging is a very costly mistake many people make.

    Anyway, this is just some thoughts.. Do what you want.. After all, every personal finance decisions are … personal.

  12. Also.. inflation is not good. It is a tax on savers. And a gain for borrowers / spenders (particularly for overindebted governments). It is bad for people who have a lot of money. But it’s worse for the lower class of society.

    Here is how it works :
    https://www.economics.utoronto.ca/jfloyd/modules/inft.html

    Adam Smith explain it very well in the last chapter of “Wealth of Nations”
    https://www.gutenberg.org/files/3300/3300-h/3300-h.htm#chap38

    Here is an extract :
    “When national debts have once been accumulated to a certain degree, there is scarce, I believe, a single instance of their having been fairly and completely paid. The liberation of the public revenue, if it has ever been brought about at all, has always been brought about by a bankruptcy; sometimes by an avowed one, though frequently by a pretended payment.
    The raising of the denomination of the coin has been the most usual expedient by which a real public bankruptcy has been disguised under the appearance of a pretended payment.
    […]
    A pretended payment of this kind, therefore, instead of alleviating, aggravates, in most cases, the loss of the creditors of the public; and, without any advantage to the public, extends the calamity to a great number of other innocent people. It occasions a general and most pernicious subversion of the fortunes of private people; enriching, in most cases, the idle and profuse debtor, at the expense of the industrious and frugal creditor; and transporting a great part of the national capital from the hands which were likely to increase and improve it, to those who are likely to dissipate and destroy it. When it becomes necessary for a state to declare itself bankrupt, in the same manner as when it becomes necessary for an individual to do so, a fair, open, and avowed bankruptcy, is always the measure which is both least dishonourable to the debtor, and least hurtful to the creditor. The honour of a state is surely very poorly provided for, when, in order to cover the disgrace of a real bankruptcy, it has recourse to a juggling trick of this kind, so easily seen through, and at the same time so extremely pernicious.”

  13. there are a lot of misconceptions about inflation in the post. it’s a complicated topic. i suggest if you want to clear up your understanding on the subject, there are two good books that explain it in fairly easy to understand language.

    1. What has Government Done to our Money – Rothbard. (you can probably download this)

    2. The Crisis of World Inflation – Lord Rees-Moog (out of print, can probably find it on ebay)

    to understand inflation, you need to understand what money is, now it works, and how it functions.

    before central banks got a full hold on the economy and instituted perpetual inflation, we had an economy run on a gold standard. it functioned incredibly well. now we have central banks rewarding the wealthy with constant asset inflation, while working people get left behind.

    again, this is a very long and complicated subject.

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