In my last post, I discussed how inflation's return has changed the calculus for investors, looking at how inflation affects returns on different asset classes, and tracing out the consequences for equity values, in the aggregate. In general, higher and more volatile inflation has negative effects on all financial assets, from stocks to corporate bonds to treasury bonds, and neutral to positive effects on gold, collectibles and real assets. That said, the impact of inflation on individual company values can vary widely, with a few companies benefiting, some affected only lightly, and other companies being affected more adversely, by higher than expected inflation. In an environment where finding inflation hedges has become the first priority for most investors, the search is on for companies that are less exposed to high and rising inflation. The conventional wisdom, based largely on investor experiences from the 1970s, is that commodity companies and firms with pricing power are the best ones to hold, if you fear inflation, but is that true, and even if it is true, why is it so? To answer these questions, I will return to basics and try to trace the effects of inflation on the drivers of value, with the intent of finding the characteristics of stocks with better inflation-hedging properties.
Inflation and Value
When in doubt about how any action or information plays out in value, I find it useful to go back to value basics, and trace out the effects of that action/information on value drivers. Following that rule book, I looked at the effects of inflation on the levers that determines value, in the graph below:
- If you believe that there is more surprises to come on the inflation front, and that a recession is not only imminent, but likely to be steep, the returns in the first five months of 2022 will be a precursor to more of the same, for the rest of the year.
- If you believe that markets have mostly or fully adjusted to higher inflation, betting on a continuation of the small cap and value outperformance to continue is dangerous.
- To the extent that there may be other countries where inflation is not the clear and present danger that it is in the United States, investing in equities in those countries will offer better risk and return tradeoffs.