Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Inflation, deflation and investing

I must confess that I have never seen such dissension and disagreement among economists about whether we are going into a period of inflation or one of deflation. On the one side, there are those who are alarmed at the easy money, low interest rate policies that have been adopted by most central banks in developed markets. The surge in the money supply, they argue, will inevitably cheapen the currency and lead to inflation. On the other side, there are many who point to the Japanese experience where a stagnating economy and weak demand lead to price deflation. I have given up on trying to make sense of what macro economists say but you probably have a point of view on inflation and are wondering how inflation or deflation will affect your portfolio.

To understand how inflation affects the value of a company, let's get down to basics. The value of a company can be written as a function of its expected cash flows over time and the discount rate appropriate for these cash flows. In its simplest form, the value of a stable growth firm can be written as:
Value = (Revenues - Operating Expenses - Depreciation) (1- tax rate) / (Cost of capital - Stable growth rate)
Assume now that inflation jumps from 1% to 5%. For value to be unaffected, everything has to increase proportionately. Thus, revenues, operating expenses and depreciation all have to increase at the inflation rate, the tax rate has to remain unchanged and the discount rate will have to increase by that same percentage. So, what might cause this to break down?
a. Lack of pricing power: Even though the overall inflation rate may be 5%, not all firms may be able to raise prices by that magnitude. Put simply, firms with loyal customers, a strong brand name and significant competitive advantages will be able pass inflation through better than firms without those benefits.
b. Input costs: By the same token, not all input costs will increase at the same rate as inflation. If oil prices increase at a rate higher than inflation, an airline that lacks pricing power may find itself squeezed by higher costs on one side and stagnant revenues on the other.
c. Tax rate: The tax code is written to tax nominal income, with little attention paid to how much of the increase in income comes from real growth and how much from inflation. Thus, the effective tax rate you pay may increase as inflation increases.
d. Cost of capital: The effect on higher inflation will be felt most directly in the risk free rate, which will rise as inflation rises. However, equity risk premiums (which determine cost of equity) and default spreads (for cost of debt) may also change.

Historically, higher inflation has not been a neutral factor for stocks. Stocks have done worse during periods of high and increasing inflation and much better in periods of lower inflation. This graph, which I borrowed from a Wall Street Journal article, illustrates the stark divide:
That may seem puzzling because we are often told that it is bonds that are hurt by inflation and that stocks are good inflation hedges. Here is why I think the logic breaks down. When inflation increases, equity investors are hurt for two reasons. The first is that the discount rate (cost of equity and capital) increases more than proportionately, because risk premiums increase with inflation. For instance, the equity risk premium in the United States increased from 3.5% in 1970 to 6.5% in 1978 and default spreads also widened. The second is that the tax code is not inflation neutral. For companies that have substantial fixed assets, depreciation is based upon historical cost and not indexed to inflation. Consequently, the tax benefits from depreciation become less valuable as inflation increases; think of it as an implicit increase in your effective tax rate.

If I believed that high inflation was around the corner, I would first shift more of my portfolio from financial assets to real assets. Within my equity allocation, I would invest more of my money in companies that have pricing power (allowing them to pass inflation through to their customers), inputs that are not very sensitive to inflation (so that costs don't keep up with inflation) and few fixed assets (to prevent the depreciation tax impact). I can think of several technology, consumer product and entertainment companies that fit the bill. As a bonus, I would like the companies to have long term debt obligations at fixed rates; inflation is likely to dilute the value of the debt. These companies are likely to see their cash inflows increase at a rate faster than inflation and will be able to buffer the impact of inflation on discount rates. In my bond portfolio, I would steer my money to short term government securities, inflation indexed treasury bonds (TIPs) and floating rate corporate notes; they are least likely to be devastated by higher inflation.

If deflation was my concern, I would invest more of my portfolio in financial assets; bonds, even with 2.5% interest rates, would be a bargain. Within my equity allocation, I would steer away from cyclical companies. At least in recent decades, deflation has gone hand-in-hand with low or negative economic growth. Consequently, I would invest in companies that sell non-discretionary products and necessities.  In my bond portfolio, my holdings will be in more credit worthy entities, since default is a very real possibility in poor economic conditions.


  1. "I would first shift more of my portfolio from financial assets to real assets."

    U said it!

    Coupled with dollar going down, no wonder, gold is being used by many countries as a hedging tool.

    This is what our fore-fathers used to say abt gold.

    Ultimately and evn in stock market, cmpanies dealing in Roti (agri and agri-based), kapda (textile) and makaan (real estate and related industry) will be winning hands down.

    Because, faced with resource crunch, even technology and entertainment industry will become "discretionary"

    Back to stone age, did u say?

  2. Here in Brazil we were used to have a high inflation rate before 1994.

    I was young but I got my college in Economics, and my finale paper was about comparing the investment returns before and after 94.

    As conclusion, I could see exactly what you said:

    high inflation - fixed assets, treasury bonds, gold and other low risk asset had more return

    low inflation - financial assets did much better.

    We didn't have deflation here yet, and I don't see it for a while, but I reckon that will be the same results as we had with lower inflation.

    Great article.


  3. An exellent post!
    As always, you always make the readers stick to the basics and enable us to think in a fundamental way that prevents any deviations from not conforming to the first principles.

  4. Thanks for the article but,why you didn't mention gold hedge against inflation and deflation. Let's admit gold is one of the most effective hedge nowadays.I am not sure it is a foe or friend of financial industry but i know it is a friend of savers.

  5. Thanks for the insightful article. I just want to ask you something. You suggest to invest in bonds if the deflation would be the future trend. However, if the government already pulled down the interest of bonds in subprime mortgage price. Therefore, there is little room for FRB in controlling interest rate. You think investing in bond is still viable option in this situation?

  6. I think this fixation with gold is a little unhealthy. Is gold a potential hedge against inflation? Yes, but so are many other productive real assets and collectibles. If gold is your asset of choice, go for it, but it should never be your only weapon.

  7. "Is gold a potential hedge against inflation? Yes, but so are many other productive real assets and collectibles"

    Have we had inflation or deflation for 3 years, if we have deflation risk in this period so why the gold price is increasing?


  8. The fact that current inflation remains low does not mean that people have stopped worrying about future inflation. If a significant subset of the market believes that inflation will be a problem in the future, the price of gold will go up.


    Poor Bernanke has short ideas for long term!

  10. Thanks for such insightful posts.
    I have a question regarding your comment re the tax benefits of a depreciation shield. Yes higher, depreciation (investment in fixed assets) can have tax advantages but how does that differ under an inflation/deflation scenario?
    I am trying to get my head around a finance leasing business with high levels of leverage and investment in fixed assets. Yes the high leverage is relatively good under an inflation scenario as financing is with old dollars but does inflation/deflation really even matter (along with the tax consequences) if you are leasing out equipment on fixed term profiles?
    Thanks in advance

  11. Great Article!! One other reason inflation is not good for stocks is the fact that bonds and stocks are also competing investment alternatives. When interest rates go high, the earning yields for stocks (inverse of P/E) should go up in order to stay competitive with bonds. This results in a lower P/E for stocks.

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