Investing Error: Don't Use Stocks as an Inflation Hedge

Hedge fund errorYou've heard it so often you can probably repeat it in your sleep: Equities are the best protection against inflation.

Financial planners say it. Money managers say it. Pundits and gurus say it. Without a nice chunk of equities in our portfolio, we are told, inflation will ravage our net worth, and we may not have anything left for our very old age.

That's why some experts have even recommended that retirees or near-retirees hold 60% or more of their assets in stocks -- terrible advice, and it destroyed many people's finances and peace of mind during the crash a couple of years ago.

The market has come back since then -- without the participation of those who sold at the bottom in despair -- so maybe some advisors believe it was sound thinking after all.

But academic research, old and new, completely flies in the face of this conventional "wisdom." It establishes clearly that stocks are not a very good hedge at all against inflation, particularly high inflation. Even Stocks for the Long Run himself, Jeremy Siegel, acknowledges that.

"Historically, that's been the case," said John Tatom, a finance professor at Indiana State University." I claim that's one of the most well-established tenets in financial economics."

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In a 2011 paper, Tatom wrote: "There is a strong negative correlation between inflation and real and nominal stock prices. Contrary to opinion, equities are not a good hedge against inflation."

Some new research by three noted experts on asset prices confirms this. Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh, and Mike Staunton of the London Business School have one of the world's deepest databases on the performance of stocks, bonds, bills, and currencies, as well as inflation. It covers 19 different markets and goes all the way back to 1900.

In an article in the 2012 Credit Suisse Global Investment Returns Yearbook, they found that during periods of "marked" inflation, equities easily outperform bonds, probably the worst investment to own during inflationary episodes. Yet equities gave a real return of -12% during those periods, while bonds lost 23.2%. Double ouch.

"When inflation has been moderate and stable,...equities have performed relatively well," the three professors concluded. "When there has been a leap in inflation, equities have performed less well in real terms. These sharp jumps in inflation are dangerous for investors."

"High inflation reduces equity values," they summed up.

Confusing ROI with Inflation Protection

So why have so many experts embraced equities as an inflation hedge? Because they're confusing the large total returns investors may have earned from equities over long periods of time with an actual "hedge" against inflation.

Because of their greater risk, equities tend to produce bigger rewards over the long run -- say, 20 years or more.

But that's not quite in the bag, either.

Exhibit A: the lost decade. The average annual total return for the S&P 500 index from 1999 to 2011 was -0.4%. So, we're going to need a hell of a good next eight years to reach the S&P's long-term averages of just under 10% a year in this 20-year period. Dow 36,000 anyone?

Of course, if you invested in certain types of stocks -- small-cap value, real estate investment trusts, and emerging markets -- you would have done well. But who knew that in 1999?

And when it comes to inflation, even the esteemed Jeremy Siegel of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania hedges his bets, so to speak.

"Over 30-year periods, the return on stocks after inflation is virtually unaffected by the inflation rate," he wrote in Kiplinger's last year. "Although stocks do well when annual inflation is in the range of 2% to 5%, their performance begins to falter when inflation exceeds 5%."

Why? Because "companies can't always pass along increased costs, especially in the case of an important raw material, such as oil. As a result, many companies will see their profits squeezed," he wrote.

Siegel's conclusion: "Stocks are not good short-term hedges against rapidly increasing inflation, but bonds are worse."

What You Should Actually Buy

So, what does that mean? If you own a lot of stock because you want to protect your portfolio against inflation, you probably should sell some.

For instance, if you're five to ten years from retirement and you have 50% to 60% of your assets in stocks, you should reduce those holdings to 40 to 50% of your portfolio.

And if you're worried about inflation, you should take some of that money -- and sell some of your bond holdings, too-- to buy some asset classes that have better track records as inflation hedges.

Such as? "In periods of high and increasing inflation, gold and commodities are definitely something you want in your portfolio," said Mark Johannessen, managing director of Harris SBSB in McLean, Va., and former president of the Financial Planning Association.

Dimson, Marsh, and Staunton's research backs him up. "Gold is the only asset that does not have its real value reduced by inflation," they write. "Gold has on average been resistant to the impact of inflation. However, investment in gold has generated volatile price fluctuations...There have been long periods when the gold investor was 'underwater' in real terms."

Not for the last decade, of course, when gold rose more than sevenfold before stalling below $1,900 per ounce. But the researchers are talking about the very long run.

Another good hedge: housing. Don't everyone all groan at once. According to Dimson, Marsh, and Staunton, "real house-price changes ... seem relatively insensitive to inflation ... Housing has provided a long-term capital appreciation that is similar in magnitude to gold."

Unfortunately, U.S. housing has produced the weakest returns of major markets over the last century, so if you'd like to hedge against inflation with your home, pack up and move to Australia.

Real estate investment trusts (REITs) may be a decent substitute, but there aren't as much data on their performance over many, many years -- and they've had a big run.

Finally, there are TIPs (Treasury inflation-protected securities), inflation-linked bonds issued by the US and other governments. Smart people like David Swensen, Yale's chief investment officer, recommend them for individual investors as good protection against inflation. But they're very expensive now.

So, what should you do? I'd take some profits in your stock and bond holdings and buy small positions (maybe 5% of your portfolio each) in gold, commodities, REITs, and TIPs ETFs, preferably when they've sold off a bit, too.

Then, I'd keep 40% to 50% in stock, 20% to 30% in bonds, and another 10% in cash. That way, you'll have some protection against inflation, deflation, and just normal life.

And if your financial advisor tells you to buy more stock to keep from outliving your money, tell him or her that in the long run, we're all dead.

Howard R. Gold is editor at large for and columnist for MarketWatch. You can follow him on Twitter @howardrgold and read why
Republicans need to stop pining for a white knight at The Independent.

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The less than original idea being touted in this article is.... do not have all of one's eggs in one basket. However, over extended periods of time, stocks have out performed bonds and in my opinion still represent a better hedge against inflation compared to most other assets.. Real estate prices should stablize and once again be an appreciable asset. Precious metals like gold continue to be the asset of "gloom and doom", however, they certainly can be part of a person's overall holdings.Nothing new here.

March 12 2012 at 11:35 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Obama has done more to destroy this economy than any thing else. Obama care, expanded welfare , business hostil programs and laws, policies that drive up the cost of gas...have all had their intended effect. Solendra and other political payofffs have cost the tax payer billions. forget about fumbling with inflation hedges that aren;t going to work as long as we have a president that is printing trillions of dollars and borrowing billions from our are just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

March 11 2012 at 8:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I remember the last gold rush around 1981-82ish when it got to $800+ / oz, and now it's at $1700+ . If you had bought $800 worth of US EE savings bonds in March of 1982 they would be worth $4700.80! Granted, the savings bonds would have stopped earning interest after 30 years, but you are up nearly sixfold compared to the twofold gain from gold, - and both are tax-deferred. The last EE savings bonds were offered by the Treasury last December; they only guaranteed a 0.6% return, but promised a guaranteed 3.5% return to maturity at 20 years! Which means that they jump in value on the first day of the month they turn 20. This at a time when 30 year US Treasuries are trading at prices that put their yield at around only 3%! What would you rather have: 20 year risk at 3.5%, or 30 year risk at only 3%? And the EE's can never go down in dollar value!

Gold, it may seem, may be the anti-correlation to the stock market as gold peaked last time around the start of the last secular bull market, and at around $252 / oz bottomed out around late 1999 when the stock market was peaking. But who knows if gold has seen its peak or if the stock market has seen it's bottom yet; looking forward is a tough call.

March 10 2012 at 9:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bill Mebane

The biggest REITs, like Simon Property, have dividend yields no bigger than Microsoft, and are trading at new highs. Looking in the rear view mirror might make them look attractive, but that;s all the more reason not to own them. They are crazily expensive.

March 09 2012 at 10:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Stocks are actually fairly good inflation hedges - steady inflation that is. Stocks don't do well during periods of unexpected or large increases in inflation (see the 1970s). Also, gold is not a good long-term inflation hedge. Sure, it does well during periods of unexpected inflation or panic (again see the 1970s), but from 1981-2005 gold didn't even beat inflation over that period. Stocks, along with TIPS, real estate, and commodities are your ways bet to beat inflation.

March 09 2012 at 3:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thank Bernake, Obama, Pelosi, Reid, and Timmy "Tax Cheat" Geithner who keep on spending money we do not have and then having the Fed create money to pay for it. Inflation is coming.

March 09 2012 at 2:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jdykbpl45's comment

You seem to forget that the idiot-boy-emperor and his ventriloquist, dick cheney, took over the country when it was in the best shape since prior to the Vietnam atrocity, and left it in a shambles. The Fed does not follow the instructions of Obama and Geitner. It makes decisions on its own. It has been trying to stimulate the economy since around 2003 when it became apparent that bush and dick were working to destroy it. Even with zero percent interest rates, when dubya's depression hit, the dollar shot up like a rocket, and this country was in grave danger of a deflationary implosion as bad, or worse than the Great Depression. The Fed is perfectly capable of raising interest rates and clamping down on the money supply if and when the economy overheats. There is no sign of it yet. Most of the inflationary pressure that's going on right now is the result of things other than monetary stimuli, things like China getting car crazy and using much more gasoline, farm land destruction in the USA combining with world population growth driving up prices of food, oil companies jacking up prices to help the GOP, etc. The economic shambles in the USA, more than anything else is a product of fraudulent right wing economics policies and tax cuts for the rich that have made the already most fortunate people in the history of humanity richer by trillions of dollars while the working class is being raked over the coals by corporate predator-thugs who own the GOP.

March 10 2012 at 1:34 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thank Bernake, Obama, Pelosi, Reid, and Timmy "Tax Cheat" Geithner who keep on spending money we do not have and then having the Fed create money to pay for it. Inflation is coming.

March 09 2012 at 2:11 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply