Fight the Inflation Boogeyman

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Investors are concerned about inflation. But how can investors attempt to inflation-proof their portfolios? Buy TIPS? Short Treasury bonds? Stocks? Real Estate? Commodities? Gold? Currencies? Or should investors regard those warnings about inflation as fear mongering?

Bernanke QE 3 - Quantitative Easing 3

Indeed, as the Federal Reserve (Fed) announced its latest round of quantitative easing (“QE3”), gauges of future inflation expectations spiked. In our assessment, the market reacted strongly as it became apparent that the Fed is moving away from its focus on inflation to a focus on employment. We believe the Fed wants to raise the price level so as to bail out millions of homeowners that are ‘under water’, i.e. owe more on their homes than they are worth. Fed Chair Bernanke considers a healthy housing market to be key to healthy consumer spending (see our Merk Insight Don’t worry, be Happy).

Judging from the market reaction to QE3, fears about future inflation are warranted. Having said that, market fears about looming inflation have calmed down a bit since the initial flare up. Could it be this calming of the market is due to the fact that the Fed is intervening in the TIPS market? TIPS are “inflation protected” Treasury securities that are linked to the Consumer Price Index. Investors buying TIPS do so in the hope that their purchasing power might be protected. When the Fed intervenes in the market to buy TIPS (or any other security for that matter), such securities are intentionally over-priced, raising doubt as to whether investors are truly “protected” from inflation. It’s not just investors that now have more limited access to measuring inflation expectations – it’s also the Fed itself. By managing the entire yield curve (short-term through long-term interest rates), we believe the Fed has blindfolded itself, as it has taken away one of the most important gauges about the health of the economy. Aside from the Fed’s intervention in the TIPS market, the government is free to change the inflation adjustment factor employed in TIPS before the securities mature. TIPS payouts are adjusted using the consumer price index (CPI), which has seen methodology changes many times. When the recent debt ceiling impasse was discussed, both Republicans and Democrats talked in favor of changing the CPI definition so that it would nominally live up to inflation linked entitlement promises while clearly eroding the purchasing power of such payouts. Even without such gimmickry, the CPI may not be reflective of the basket of goods and services consumed by investors as they approach retirement given, for example, that healthcare may comprise an ever-increasing part of one’s spending. Alas, much of investing is about trying to preserve purchasing power and, alas, buying TIPS may not provide adequate protection.

If one is negative about the inflation outlook, why not simply short Treasuries, either directly or through ETFs? While we are pessimistic about the long-term outlook of Treasuries, it can be very costly to short them, given that – as a short seller – one has to continuously pay the interest of the securities one shorts. If one buys an ETF shorting Treasuries, the cost of the ETF is to be added. Shorting Treasuries might make sense for investors that are good at market timing. However, calling the top in major bubbles is rather difficult, just reflect on former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan’s “irrational exuberance” speech years ahead of the stock market collapse in 2000; similarly, those that saw the bubble in the housing market coming didn’t necessarily get the timing right.

If TIPS don’t provide enough bang for the buck, and shorting Treasuries can be costly, what about buying stocks? Bernanke appears to use every opportunity possible to praise the benefits QE has on rising stock prices. While we agree that QE has pushed stock prices higher, it may be dangerous for the Fed to praise this link given that it raises expectations of more Fed easing whenever the markets plunge (see Merk Insight: Bernanke Put). For example, how many investors buy Cisco 1 shares because of the great management skills of CEO John Chambers as compared to those who buy because of QE3? We pose this question because stocks are rather volatile; not only are stocks volatile, but the volatility of stocks can be all over the place. Historically, the annualized standard deviation of the S&P 500 index hovers in the mid 20% range, with outbursts into the 40% range in 2008. So why are investors taking on the “noise” of the stock market, when the reason they invest is because of QE? Indeed, our analysis shows that investors appear to be ever more chasing the next perceived intervention by policy makers rather than investing based on fundamentals. That’s not only bad for capital formation (these misallocations are summarily referred to as “bubbles” these days), but also suggests that we might want to look for a more direct way to take a position on what we call the “mania” of policy makers.

Talking about policy makers: you might not agree with them, but if there is one good thing to be said about our policy makers, it is that they may be quite predictable.

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About Axel G Merk

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