sticky inflation

By Pramod Atluri and Ritchie Tuazon, Capital Group

Of all the fears investors have faced over the past 30 years, high inflation wasn’t among them. In 2021, that’s changed.

Today, the biggest questions for investors revolve around inflation: How high will it go and how long will it last? Is it “transitory” as the Federal Reserve claims? Or is elevated inflation the new normal amid labor shortages, supply chain bottlenecks and a severe energy crunch?

The uncertain path of the pandemic makes near-term conditions difficult to predict but, over the long term, the picture comes into better focus, says Pramod Atluri, principal investment officer of The Bond Fund of America.

“While we are facing a cyclical rise in inflation and interest rates today, when I look out five years, I think U.S. economic growth will be slower and inflation may be lower,” Atluri says. Economic growth should slow due to high debt levels and fading stimulus, resulting in a return to GDP gains of 1.5% to 2.5% a year. Consequently, interest rates should stay relatively low as well.

“In the meantime, we are laser focused on inflation because that’s the biggest risk to investors’ portfolios over the near term,” Atluri explains. “If we are wrong about inflation, we will be wrong on the upside, so it makes sense to protect against that outcome.”

Two flavors of inflation: Sticky and flexible

A source of uncertainty today is that there are two different types of inflation: sticky and flexible. Sticky inflation, currently around 2.6% annualized, tends to exhibit longer staying power. Sticky categories include rent, owners’ equivalent rent, insurance costs and medical expenses.

Flexible inflation has climbed this year to nearly 14% — the highest since the 1970s. However, this level of inflation likely won’t last. The flexible category contains products such as food, energy and cars, where prices can move a lot higher or lower over time. For instance, that’s already happened with lumber, copper and soybeans. Prices for those products skyrocketed this spring and have since come down.

Beware of sticky inflation

As anyone who has tried to buy a used car knows, flexible inflation categories have spiked due to pandemic-related shortages, a lack of available labor and supply chain disruptions. A quick resolution to these challenges is unlikely, but more normal conditions should return by mid to late 2022, says Ritchie Tuazon, principal investment officer of American Funds Strategic Bond Fund.

“What that means is, the upside risk is in the sticky components,” Tuazon explains. “Many of the flexible price categories moved higher for transitory reasons, but inflation in those areas may come back down to zero or even go negative. The sticky components will drive inflation in 2022 so that’s what investors need to keep an eye on.”

In short, flexible inflation is transitory, but sticky inflation could be troublesome.

In Tuazon’s estimation, overall inflation as measured by the U.S. Consumer Price Index should gradually decline in the months ahead, eventually falling into a range of 2.50% to 2.75% by the end of 2022.

If that prediction holds, there’s a good chance the Federal Reserve will not raise interest rates in 2022. Tuazon expects the Fed to officially announce in November that it will begin reducing its bond-buying stimulus program. That process will take several quarters. And the Fed’s first rate hike will come in 2023, which is later than market expectations.

“I don’t think the Fed will be in a hurry to raise rates and potentially derail the COVID recovery if inflation remains in check,” Tuazon reasons.

What if this benign inflation outlook is wrong and consumer prices move sharply higher?

“That is by no means our base case, but I think it is a big enough risk that it should factor into portfolio construction,” Tuazon adds. He favors Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities, or TIPS, as an effective hedge against higher inflation.

Investment implications

Holding some TIPS in your bond portfolio is a smart move to consider heading into 2022, say both Tuazon and Atluri. As for stocks, there are a few rules of thumb to consider. Historically, higher prices have boosted commodities, as well as sectors that benefit from higher interest rates (such as banks) and companies with pricing power in must-have categories like semiconductors and popular consumer brands.

Before making portfolio adjustments, it’s important to remember that sustained periods of elevated inflation are rare in U.S. history. People of a certain age will remember the ultra-high inflation of the 1970s and early 1980s. But in hindsight, it’s clear that was a unique period. In fact, deflationary pressures have often been more difficult to tame, as students of the Great Depression will attest.

Over the past 100 years, U.S. inflation has stayed below 5% the vast majority of the time. More recently, in the aftermath of the 2007–2009 global financial crisis, inflation has struggled to hit 2% on a sustained basis. And that’s despite unprecedented stimulus measures engineered by the Fed in an attempt to reach the central bank’s 2% goal.

Another important point: It’s mostly at the extremes — when inflation is 6% or above — that financial assets tend to struggle. Stocks have also come under pressure when inflation goes negative, as one would expect.

For investors, some inflation can be a good thing. Even during times of higher inflation, stocks and bonds have generally provided solid returns.

________________

Subscribe to LRPC’s Monday Morning Minute

Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC (LRPC) Monday Morning Minute is crafted to provide decision-makers with important information about the economy, investments and corporate retirement plans in a format that allows a reader to consume the information in less than 60 seconds. As an independent, objective investment adviser, LRPC has access to many sources of research and shares the best and most relevant information with its readers each week.

About Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC

Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC (LRPC) is a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based independent, objective Registered Investment Adviser (RIA) providing investment advisory, fiduciary compliance, employee education, provider management and plan design services to employer retirement plan sponsors. The firm specializes in sustainable investment strategies for retirement plans that incorporate Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) factors and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) elements. LRPC currently has contracts in place to provide consulting services on more than a half billion dollars in plan assets. For more information, please contact Robert C. Lawton at (414) 828-4015 or bob@lawtonrpc.com or visit the firm’s website at https://www.lawtonrpc.com. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser.

Important Disclosures

This information was developed as a general guide to educate plan sponsors and is not intended as authoritative guidance, tax, legal or investment advice. Each plan has unique requirements and you should consult your attorney or tax adviser for guidance on your specific situation. In no way does Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC assure that, by using the information provided, a plan sponsor will be in compliance with ERISA regulations. Investors should carefully consider investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses. The statements in this publication are the opinions and beliefs of the commentator expressed when the commentary was made and are not intended to represent that person’s opinions and beliefs at any other time. The commentary does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC and should not be construed as recommendations or investment advice. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC offers no tax, legal or accounting advice and any advice contained herein is not specific to any individual, entity or retirement plan, but rather general in nature and, therefore, should not be relied upon for specific investment situations. Lawton Retirement Plan Consultants, LLC is a Wisconsin Registered Investment Adviser and accepts clients outside of Wisconsin based upon applicable state registration regulations and the “de minimus” exception.

Additional Important Disclosures

The return of principal for bond funds and for funds with significant underlying bond holdings is not guaranteed. Fund shares are subject to the same interest rate, inflation and credit risks associated with the underlying bond holdings. Higher yielding, higher risk bonds can fluctuate in price more than investment-grade bonds, so investors should maintain a long-term perspective. The market indexes are unmanaged and, therefore, have no expenses. Investors cannot invest directly in an index. Bloomberg Barclays U.S. Aggregate Index represents the U.S. investment-grade fixed-rate bond market. U.S. Consumer Price Index is a measure of the average change over time in the prices paid by urban consumers for a market basket of consumer goods and services. Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers is a core index calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and covers households of all Metropolitan Statistical Areas, which is around 80% of the country’s population. Standard & Poor’s 500 Composite Index is a market capitalization-weighted index based on the results of approximately 500 widely held common stocks. BLOOMBERG® is a trademark and service mark of Bloomberg Finance L.P. and its affiliates (collectively “Bloomberg”). Bloomberg or Bloomberg’s licensors own all proprietary rights in the Bloomberg Indices. Neither Bloomberg nor Bloomberg’s licensors approves or endorses this material, or guarantees the accuracy or completeness of any information herein, or makes any warranty, express or implied, as to the results to be obtained therefrom and, to the maximum extent allowed by law, neither shall have any liability or responsibility for injury or damages arising in connection therewith. Past performance is no guarantee of future results. The S&P 500 Composite Index (“Index”) is a product of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and/or its affiliates and has been licensed for use by Capital Group. Copyright © 2021 S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC, a division of S&P Global, and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved. Redistribution or reproduction in whole or in part are prohibited without written permission of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC.