In the 1990s movie The Shipping News, an old newspaperman explains to Kevin Spacey how to cover the news. If there is a storm visible anywhere, he explains, you write “Storm threatens the town,” even if the storm is nowhere near and is unlikely to hit. If—as expected—the storm never hits, you just write the follow up: “Town spared by storm.”
Readers may be excused for thinking something similar about the latest stories about looming, threatening, surging, terrifying inflation. Yes, the inflation forecasts were surging months ago, and hit 8-year highs. Had they continued there would be grounds to worry. But they haven’t continued. On the contrary, they’ve been falling for two months. The bond market’s 5-year inflation forecast is now lower than it was in mid-March. The market sees five-year inflation running at around 2.6%. That’s higher than we’ve been used to for a decade, but it’s nothing to cause any significant alarm.
That can change, of course. Maybe it will. We’ll see.
But with all this talk I got to thinking about the obvious question. If serious inflation really does hit, what can we do about it? How can we protect our investments?
That’s an especially key question for today’s retirees and those expecting to retire soon. When we’re older we’re generally advised to keep most of our money in more “conservative” investments, meaning things like bonds, that involve less risk. Someone in their 20s or 30s may not worry unduly if their retirement savings plunge 30% in a market rout or an inflationary spiral. For someone in their 60s, let alone older, that can become a major financial crisis.
So I went back and dug up the information from the last, infamous inflationary spiral in the 1970s, when consumer price inflation often topped 10% a year. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus pointed out that no one ever walks through the same stream twice, because the second time it’s not the same stream, and we’re not the same person. Everything changes. There is no guarantee the next inflationary boom, even if it happens, will look anything like the last one — any more than we should assume that it will be accompanied by outbreaks of disco music and flared jeans.
Nonetheless the chart above shows the total returns, after adjusting for inflation, of various asset classes from December 1971 to December 1981. (I used those dates because the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts, or NAREIT, starts their data series then.) The data on energy stocks came from data compiled by professor Ken French at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.
This is what happened to your purchasing power if you invested in these assets and hung on for 10 years. (I’ve excluded gold, which is a different story.)
The key standout is that you really didn’t want to own Treasury bonds. The near 40% loss of purchasing power over 10 years is somewhat notional—it is derived from the compound annual returns on 10 Year Treasurys compiled by New York University’s Stern School of Business, divided by the consumer-price index—but tells a story nonetheless. (In Great Britain, where inflation was even worse, government bonds during the 1970s became known as “certificates of confiscation.” Ouch.)
Holding them cost you money. Lots of it.
You could argue that the danger today is even greater, simply because the yields on long-term Treasury bonds are so low. Federal Reserve quantitative easing, bond buying, and zero interest-rate policies have left Treasury yields at their lowest on record—which means the turns would be a disaster if inflation reared its head.
Corporate bonds and the S&P 500
were also terrible investments. It’s worth remembering that these are real term losses over a decade, which means investors didn’t just lose a lot of money—they also lost a lot of time.
Utility stocks weren’t great, but they held up better. And Treasury bills—short-term paper—did better still. But once again you were going backward when you needed to be going forwards.
No one who remembers the 1970s will be surprised that energy companies boomed. Less well-remembered, maybe, is that REITs also did pretty well. These numbers, incidentally, represented property-owning REITs and excluded mortgage REITs, which own loans.
But there are two caveats to this. The first is that of course energy stocks did well, because a key driver of inflation in the 1970s was the rise of OPEC and two oil embargoes it imposed on the West for political reasons. Cue Heraclitus. There is no particular reason to assume that the next inflationary surge will be the same.
The second caveat is that although REITs ended up doing well, they were volatile along the way. In particular, REIT prices collapsed in the OPEC-driven recession of 1972-4. And according to FactSet, U.S. REITs today already look pretty expensive on some measures. For instance it reckons that the forecast dividend yield on the Vanguard Real Estate ETF (a reasonable benchmark for the industry) is just 2.9% — by far the lowest since it was launched in 2004. Looking through NAREIT data, I can’t find a moment since 1971 when the overall yield on REITs was this low. During the real estate bubble in 2007, incidentally, the yield bottomed out no lower than 3.6%
So it may be that REITs offer less inflation protection today than we would hope.
One key difference in the 1970s is that there were no “inflation-protected” Treasury bonds to keep investors protected. So-called TIPS are in theory almost the perfect investment for retirees. They are issued by the U.S. government and their coupons are safe against default. Meanwhile their coupons effectively adjust to reflect changes in consumer prices.
The problem today is that TIPS—like almost everything else in the bond market—look incredibly expensive. Most TIPS already lock in an actual loss of purchasing power if you buy them today. For example if you buy 5 year TIPS bonds and hold them for 5 years you’ll end up losing 9% of your purchasing power. And 30-year TIPS bonds offer the same 9% loss, though stretched out over 30 years.
It’s not very compelling. And it shows the risks that the government’s policy responses have created for those in retirement and near it.