CFP, CFA, MBA, CKA
Financial Wellness co-columnist Bob Crew is a financial life planner with Triune Financial Partners. He received his B.A. degree from MidAmerica Nazarene University and his MBA from the University of Kansas. In the financial industry since 1986, he is a member of the Financial Planning Association and the CFA Institute. Learn more at triunefp.com.Read Articles Written by Bob Crew
Financial Wellness co-columnist Fritz Wood is a veterinary industry veteran with a special interest in finance. He works with Triune Financial Partners to connect veterinarians with experienced, independent financial planners. He is the former personal finance editor of Veterinary Economics and was a treasurer and board member at the American Veterinary Medical Foundation. He holds bachelor degrees in accounting and business administration from the University of Kansas.
Have you noticed the recent headlines about soaring inflation? The better question is, how can you have missed them? My, how quickly things change. A New York Times article from May 2019 stated, “Federal Reserve officials are increasingly worried that inflation is too low and could leave the central bank with less room to maneuver in an economic downturn.” Less than two years later, the Wall Street Journal headline “Everything Screams Inflation” sounded alarm bells among investors. The author, a veteran financial columnist, wrote, “We could be at a generational turning point for finance. Politics, economics, international relations, demography and labor are all shifting to supporting inflation.”
Prices, as measured by the Consumer Price Index, jumped by 7% in 2021. However, the CPI measures a basket of specific goods and services, so inflation’s effects on your spending might look different.
Did the CPI’s 2021 rise signal broad and persistent inflation? Or was it a short-term reaction after the unusually sharp 2020 economic downturn and resulting supply chain issues? No one knows for sure, but the future of inflation is one of many factors that investors are considering. The market takes positive signals, such as exciting new products and technologies, substantial sales gains, and dividend increases, and balances them against negative information, like falling profits, global conflicts and national debt, to, as another writer put it, “arrive at a price every day that both buyers and sellers deem fair.”
Financial asset prices include inflation expectations. Hundreds of billions of dollars in stocks and bonds are traded on an average day. Market participants factor their expectations around inflation and other economic data into those trades. As new information develops, investors might reassess their expectations. Remember that the current prices of stocks and bonds are always forward-looking and represent the collective expectations of future events.
Advice for the Investor
How should the average investor react to inflation? First, some perspective:
- History shows that stocks outperform inflation over time. Over three decades through December 2021, the S&P 500 had an annualized return of 11.12%. Even after adjusting for inflation, the return was 8.66%. An article from Dimensional Fund Advisors [bit.ly/3oZTOui] explored how a reliable connection was lacking between high inflation and stock returns over that period, meaning high inflation is not a good indicator of lower or higher stock returns.
- What about double-digit inflation, as happened in the 1940s and ’70s? We find similar results from 1927 through 2020: real returns averaging 5.5% — that is, the market return less inflation — in years with above-average inflation for various asset classes of stocks and bonds. Each of those assets outpaced inflation except for T-Bills. (T-Bills are very short-term debt issued and backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government.)
Let us assume that one believes high inflation will persist. Some investors might want to hedge against higher inflation, while others might be tempted to employ market-timing moves and change their portfolios. Human nature is to want to do something.
For market timing to succeed, someone needs a buying and selling rule, or discipline, that directs precisely when and how to revise a portfolio. By the way, flying by the seat of your pants (“I’ll know it when I see it.”) is not a trading discipline. A trading rule based on inflation estimates is a market-timing strategy not based on discipline.
Inflation estimates can be quite broad and change randomly. The problem is that successful market timing, according to Dimensional Vice President Weston Wellington, “requires two correct predictions: when to revise the portfolio and when to change it back.” (Learn more at bit.ly/3I14AI4.)
Being negative on the near-term outlook for stocks or bonds based on concerns about inflation or other matters is not enough. Current prices already reflect such concerns. To justify changing the composition of your portfolio, you need to be more negative than the average investor and then be smarter than the crowd once again when you believe the time is right. And you have to continue to be correct in future timing attempts.
Even by professionals, successful market-timing strategies are difficult to document. For example, consider New Year’s Day 1979. The broad U.S. stock market was positive in 1978 but did not outpace inflation over the prior two years. The feeling in your gut was that the next two years would bring double-digit inflation for the first time since World War II. Incidentally, your gut would be correct. So, what would you do? Seared in your memory was 1974, when the inflation-adjusted total return for U.S. stocks was negative 35.05%, among the five worst returns dating to 1926.
You follow your gut and sell stocks betting that security prices will be negative over the next two years. The result? The market behaves precisely the opposite, and you miss out on above-average returns.
Investors’ recent concerns about inflation appear tied to substantial increases in government spending and the U.S. debt load (both hot-potato public policy issues). We don’t mean to downplay their importance, but the issues aren’t new, and current prices likely reflect the expected consequences.
The future is always uncertain. As economist Frank Knight observed 100 years ago, the willingness to bear uncertainty is the key reason investors have the opportunity for profit. Something will always worry investors. However, the inevitability of short-term market volatility due to unwelcome or unexpected events should be addressed in the initial design of your portfolio rather than by short-term market-timing moves based on current headlines.
The best answer to the question “What should I do about inflation?” might be boring. Timing markets around inflation expectations can be difficult and risky. Instead of trying to outguess the market, investors might find comfort learning that the market already incorporates expectations around supply chains, consumer demand, taxes, government spending and, yes, even inflation.
Focus on Yourself
A successful long-term investment strategy should be based on your unique facts and circumstances, not on headlines and current events. A comprehensive financial life plan will identify your short-, mid- and long-term goals. Using this information, you can coordinate risk-appropriate investment strategies to when you expect to need funds from your portfolio.
Implement a low-risk strategy, meaning cash or similarly stable instruments, for short-term goals and a moderate-risk allocation for midterm goals. Then, invest the remainder using a growth strategy to support long-term goals. Finally, review your plan at least annually to help you make sound decisions based on a comprehensive view of your life rather than current market conditions.
The stock market will always have ups and downs, so avoid making investment decisions based on short-term trends or fear-inducing headlines.