Inflation Investment Ideas

Inflation Investment Ideas

Inflation continues to shock the Global economy and has become a major concern when we discuss investment ideas. This week’s data showed the Consumer Price Index up 9.1% over last year, and the Producer Price Index is up over 11%. These are numbers not seen since 1981.

Today, I’m going to share some thoughts on inflation and get into how we want to respond to this situation. But first, here is an inside look at the government response to inflation.

Federal Reserve Hitting the Brakes

Last week, I attended a breakfast meeting for the Arkansas CFA Society at the Federal Reserve office in Little Rock. Our guest speaker was James Bullard, president of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank and voting member of the Open Market Committee which sets interest rates.

Bullard said that we were at a profound regime switching moment today, and that this is not just a blip in inflation but a “stunning amount of inflation”. He stated that the Fed would move aggressively to reduce inflation and that they were committed to their inflation target of 2%. He thinks the Fed will continue to raise rates until policy rates are greater than the inflation rate and may need to hold those high rates for years to come to bring inflation down.

Bullard felt that the current inflation levels are not simply a temporary supply shock from the Ukraine War. Output is actually up. In March 2020, the Fed responded very quickly to support an economy crashing from COVID-19 shutdowns. 60 days later, markets recovered and housing boomed. He wishes that they had reduced their asset purchases sooner. Instead, the Fed is only now ceasing to buy bonds and is allowing their holdings to run-off as they mature. The global stimulus response was correct, but has overheated.

He was less concerned about the possibility of a recession. Bullard said that recessions are difficult to predict and that the Fed is going to focus on getting inflation under control first. Inflation remains a global problem, but the US Federal Reserve will lead the way on fighting inflation, as the European Central Bank has other issues making them slower to respond.

Inflation, Rising Rates, Recession

It’s important to understand that even if inflation remains elevated for a couple of years, the impact of inflation may only be part of the story. Our investment ideas cannot simply assume high inflation as the only factor. We have to also consider the likelihood of rising interest rates and a recession. We’d love it if the Federal Reserve can orchestrate a soft landing as they apply brakes to this runaway economy. But they have not been very good at soft landings in the past.

The Fed policies are starting to work. Since the June inflation numbers, we’ve already seen the price of oil down by 20%. Mortgage applications are down and we should start to see housing inventories normalize and home prices stop their double digit increases. Interest rates have doubled compared to last year – 5.5% versus 2.75% for a 30-year mortgage – and this will impact how much home buyers can afford to pay. The Bloomberg Commodity Index was at 130 on June 16th and is now at 113, a drop of 13% in one month.

It is hard to imagine additional inflation shocks or surprises at this point. Despite the headlines, markets already know we have inflation. Inflation remains high, but may have peaked and should be starting to come down. The question is what is next? How will the markets respond to the Fed actions? Here are five thoughts about where to go from here.

Five Inflation Investment Ideas

  1. Rising Rates. Bond investors beware. The Fed is going to continue to raise interest rates for an extended period. Keep your duration short on bonds. Consider floating rate bonds, if you don’t have any. Stay high quality – rising rates may cause defaults in weaker credits.
  2. I-Bonds. These are inflation linked US savings bonds. They’ve been in the news this year, but I’ve been writing about them since 2016. Limited to $10,000 in purchases a year. These could do great for a couple of years.
  3. Recession and Stocks. We might already be in a recession today, but won’t know it until later economic data shows a negative GDP for two quarters. Please resist the temptation to try to time the stock market. Recessions are a lagging indicator; stocks are a leading indicator and stocks will bounce back sooner. If you try to get out of stocks, it will be very difficult to get back in successfully. Instead, focus on diversification, with Value and Quality stocks. Avoid the high-flying growth names, we are already seeing those stocks get pummelled.
  4. Roth Conversions. We are in a Bear Market, with the S&P 500 Index down 20%. This could be a good time to look at Roth Conversions, if you believe as I do that stocks will come back at some point in the future. An index fund that used to be $50,000 is now trading for $40,000. Do the Roth Conversion, pay taxes on the $40,000 and then it will grow tax-free from here. This works best if you anticipate being in a similar tax bracket in retirement as today.
  5. Cash is Trash. Inflation is reducing your purchasing power. Thankfully, rising interest rates means we can now earn some money on Bonds and CDs. We can build laddered bond portfolios from 1-5 years with yields of 3-5%. And we have CDs at 3% as short as 13 months. Those are a lot better than earning 0% on cash. If you don’t need 100% liquidity, short-term bonds, CDs, and T-Bills are back.

Perseverance and Planning

I believe in long-term investing. Times like these will challenge investors to have the perseverance to stay the course. Rising rates and a possible recession in the months ahead may pose additional losses to our investment portfolios. If I thought we could successfully avoid the losses and step away from the market, I’d do that in a heartbeat. But all the evidence I have seen on market timing suggest it is unlikely to add any value, and would probably make things worse. We will stay invested, continue to rebalance, tax loss harvest, and carefully consider our options and best course of action.

With higher inflation, the cost of living in retirement increases, and so we have to aim for equity-like returns to make plans work. For our clients who are in retirement or close to retirement, we typically have a bucket with 5-years of expenses set aside in short-term bonds. And that bucket is still there and we won’t need to touch their equities for five years. In many cases, we have bonds which will mature in 2023, 2024, etc. in place to fund your spending or RMD needs. So, I am happy we have the bucket strategy in place, it is working as we had planned.

We have shared some inflation investment ideas, but I think the risks to investors may be greater from the Fed. Rising rates and recession are likely in the cards as they look to slow the economy. In spite of the headlines, this will undoubtedly be different than 1981, so I’m not sure we have an exact road map of what will happen. But, I will be your guide to continue to monitor, evaluate, and recommend what steps we want to take with our investments.

We Bought An Airbnb

We Bought An Airbnb

In January, we bought a house in Hot Springs, Arkansas and have listed it on Airbnb. This is a new venture for us and I wanted to share my evolving thoughts about debt, inflation, cash, and real estate. Although the stock market has been down so far in 2022, don’t think that this means I am giving up on stocks as an investment. Not at all!

If you want to check out our property, here is the listing on Airbnb. My wife, Luiza, has done a great job of decorating and furnishing the house. And I owe a big thank you to my parents who spent three weeks helping us with renovations. It has been live for one week now, and we have eight bookings in April and May. Let me know what you think about the listing!

We Went Into Debt

Prior to this purchase, we were debt free and we purchased our new property with a mortgage. I could have sold investments and paid cash for the house, but I think that would have been a bad idea. Taking a mortgage is the better choice.

Leverage can be a tremendous tool, when used properly. Taking on debt to buy appreciating assets and cash flowing investments can have a multiplier effect. This is “good” debt. Bad debt would be spending on depreciating assets like cars, or using credit card debt to fund a lifestyle. I eventually realized that being debt-free would actually slow down our growth versus taking on some smart debt.

For Airbnb investors, a property evaluation is often based on the “Cash on Cash” return. What does that mean? Let’s consider a $200,000 house which produces a hypothetical $14,000 a year in profit. If you purchase the property with $200,000 cash, your Cash on Cash return is 7%. But if you put only 20% down ($40,000) and make $8,000 (net of the monthly mortgage), your cash on cash return is 20%. In other words, it can be a fairly attractive investment because of the leverage. Without the debt, the returns are not that compelling compared to stocks, for example. And if you use mortgages, you can buy $1 million of properties with $200,000 down. That could grow your wealth much faster than just buying one property for $200,000.

Debt, Inflation, and Government Spending

Beyond the numbers for this particular house, I think the world is now favoring debtors. Our government spending has been growing for years. And then when the pandemic hit, spending shot up dramatically and shows little sign of returning to its previous trajectory.

Our government, and many others, are running massive deficits and have no intention or ability to reduce spending. They will simply never pay off this debt. It will only grow. (See: the US Debt Clock.) We now have inflation of over 7%. I don’t think inflation will stay this high, but I also don’t think it will go back to 2%. Governments will have to inflate their way out of debt. There is an excellent video from billionaire hedge fund manager Ray Dalio: the Changing World Order. He documents historical civilizations who expanded debt and saw resultant inflation. It is a brilliant piece if you want to understand today’s economy.

Inflation favors debtors and penalizes holders of cash and bonds. 7 percent inflation over 5 years will reduce the purchasing power of $1000 to $600. The holder of a bond will see a 40% depreciation of the real value of their bond. And the debtor, such as the US government or a mortgage holder, will benefit on the other side.

I reached the conclusion that I should be a debtor like our government. Staying in cash and a lot of bonds, would be a poor choice long term. I didn’t sell any stocks to buy our investment property, but I did reduce cash and bonds. Today, we can borrow at 3-5% while inflation is at 7%. And if interest rates do come back down to 2%, I can always refinance the mortgage.

Read more: Inflation Investments

Thoughts on Real Estate Investing

  1. Real Estate is a business, not a passive investment. Managing an Airbnb is time consuming and can have headaches of dealing with people and problems. We have spent a huge amount of time (and about $14,000) improving our property and furnishing it for Airbnb. Buying an Index Fund does not carry as much risk or time commitment!
  2. It is the leverage which makes real estate attractive. Without the mortgage, not so much. (Imagine if we could buy $100,000 of an S&P 500 Index fund with only 20% down. That would be incredible over the long term.)
  3. Higher inflation can help real estate prices and rent prices, while our mortgage stays fixed. Besides the cash flow, we also benefit from: 1. Paying down the mortgage and building equity. 2. Increasing home value over time. 3. Some tax benefits such as depreciation.
  4. Your personal residence is still an expense, not an investment. More pre-retirees should be looking into House Hacking. This will enable many to retire years earlier.
  5. I like the returns on short-term rentals. With elevated prices today, many long term rentals have mediocre cash flow potential. Especially if we have some repair expenses and vacancy.

So far, we are happy to have bought an Airbnb. It fits well with our willingness to take risks, start a business, and do repairs ourselves. We are looking to buy another. But we know it’s not for everyone. If this is something which interests you, I am happy to discuss it with you and share what I know.

Bonds in 2022

Bonds in 2022

Resuming last week’s Investment Themes, today we consider Bonds in 2022. It is a challenging environment for bond investors. We are coming off record low yields and the yield on the 10-year Treasury is still only 1.5%. At the same time, yields are starting to move up. And since prices move inversely to yields, the US Aggregate Bond index ETF (AGG) is actually down 1.74% year to date. Even including the yield, you’ve lost money in bonds this year. With stocks having a great year in 2021, it is frustrating to see bonds dragging down the returns of a diversified portfolio.

Inflation Hurts Bonds

Inflation is picking up in the US and globally. Supply chain issues, strong demand for goods, and rising labor costs are increasing prices. The Federal Reserve this week said they would be removing the word “transitory” from their description of inflation. And now that it appears that Jay Powell will remain the Chair, it is believed that the Fed will focus on lowering inflation in 2022. They will reduce their bond buying program which has suppressed interest rates. And they are expected to gradually start increasing the Fed Funds rate in 2022.

It is difficult to make accurate predictions about interest rates, but the consensus is that rates will continue to rise in 2022. So, on the one hand, bonds have very little yield to offer. And on the other hand, you will lose money if interest rates continue to climb. Then, to add insult to injury, most bonds are not maintaining your purchasing power with inflation at 6%.

Bond Themes for 2022

There aren’t a lot of great options for bond investors today. But here are the bond investment themes we believe will benefit your portfolio for the year ahead. This is how we are positioning portfolios

  1. We will be increasing our allocation to Floating Rate bonds (“Bank Loans”). These are bonds with adjustable interest rates. As rates rise, the interest charged goes up. These are a good Satellite for rising rate environments.
  2. Within core bonds, we want to reduce duration to shorter term bonds. This can reduce interest rate risk.
  3. We continue to hold Preferred Stocks for their yield. While their prices will come under pressure if rates rise, they offer a continuous cash flow.
  4. Ladder 5-year fixed annuities. I have been beating this drum for years. Still, multi-year guaranteed annuities (MYGA) have higher yields than CDs, Treasuries, or A-rated corporate and municipal bonds. If you don’t need the liquidity, MYGAs offer a guaranteed yield and principal.
  5. I previously suggested I-Series Savings Bonds rather than TIPS. These are linked to inflation and presently are paying 7.12%. Purchases are limited to $10,000 a year per person, and unfortunately cannot be held in a brokerage account or an IRA. Read my recent article for more details. I personally bought $10,000 of I-Bonds this week.

Purpose of Bonds

Even with a negative environment for bonds, they still have a role in most portfolios. Unless you have the risk capacity to be 100% in stocks, bonds offer crucial diversification. When we have a portfolio with 60% stocks and 40% bonds, we have an opportunity to rebalance. When stocks are down, like in March of 2020, we can use bonds to buy more stocks while they are on sale. And of course, a portfolio with 40% in bonds has much less volatility than one which has 100% stocks.

Yields may eventually go back up to more normal levels. While it would be nice to have higher yields, the process of yields going up will be painful for bond investors. Our themes are trying to reduce this “interest rate risk”. We hope to reset to higher rates in the future, while reducing a potential loss in bond prices in 2022.