By Ben Levisohn and Jane J. Kim
Inflation,long a sleeping giant, is finally awakening. And that could present problems—along with opportunities—for investors.
A quick glance at the overall inflation numbers might suggest there is little reason to worry. The most recent U.S. Consumer Price Index was up just 1.5% over the past year. Not only was that lower than the historical average of about 3%, but it was uncomfortably low for Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke , who prefers to see inflation at about 2%.
Yet it is a much different situation overseas, particularly in the developing world. In South Korea, the CPI rose at a 4.1% clip in January from a year earlier, higher than the 3.8% estimate. In Brazil, analysts expect prices to rise 5.6% this year, exceeding the central-bank target of 4.5%. China, meanwhile, has been boosting interest rates and raising bank capital requirements to keep inflation, which rose to 4.6% in December, in check.
"Emerging market economies are overheating," says Julia Coronado , chief economist for North America at BNP Paribas in New York. "They need to slow growth or inflation will become destabilizing."
Even some developed economies are seeing rising prices. Inflation in the U.K. surged to 3.7% in December, while the euro zone's rate climbed to 2.4% in January, the fastest rise since 2008.
Much of the uptick has been driven by commodity prices. During the past six months, oil has jumped 9%, copper has gained 36% and silver has shot up 56%. Agricultural products have soared as well: Cotton, wheat and soybeans have risen 100%, 24% and 42%, respectively. That's a problem because rising input prices "work their way down the food chain to CPI," says Alan Ruskin , global head of G-10 foreign-exchange strategy at Deutsche Bank /zigman2/quotes/203042512/composite DB -0.43% .
Of course, the main inflation driver is usually wages—and that isn't a factor in the U.S., where high unemployment has kept a lid on pay for three years.
Yet there isn't a historical blueprint for the inflation scenario that seems to be unfolding now. Not only has the global economy changed drastically since the last big inflationary run during the 1970s, but the lingering effects of the recent debt crisis remain a wild card.
For investors, that means traditional inflation busters such as real estate and gold might not work as expected, while other strategies might perform better.
So how should you position your portfolio? The best approach, say advisers, is to tweak asset allocations rather than overhaul them. That involves dialing back on some kinds of bonds, stocks and commodities and increasing holdings of others. Here's a guide:
What to Sell
• Bonds. The price of a bond moves in the opposite direction of its yield. When inflation kicks up, interest rates usually move higher, pressuring bond prices. Even buy-and-hold investors get hurt, because higher inflation erodes the real value of the interest payments you receive and the principal you get back when the bond matures.
The drop is usually most extreme in longer-dated bonds, because low yields are locked in for a longer period of time. So inflation-wary investors should shorten the maturities of their bonds, say advisers.
The safest bonds, especially Treasurys, are usually hardest hit, because those are the most influenced by changes in rates—unlike corporate bonds, whose prices also move based on credit quality. From September 1986 through September 1987, for example, as inflation moved higher, Treasurys dropped 1.2%.
It might even make sense to dial back on Treasury inflation-protected securities, whose principal and interest payments grow alongside the CPI. That's because investors already have flooded into TIPS, driving up prices and driving down the real, inflation-adjusted yields. A typical 10-year TIPS, for example, yields just 1.1% after inflation, compared with an average of more than 2% in recent years.
With so little cushion, long-term TIPS carry a higher risk of loss for investors who are forced to sell before the bonds mature. "Even if inflation is rising, you can still lose money," says Joseph Shatz , interest-rate strategist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
• Hard assets. Real estate may be a classic inflation hedge, but it seems likely to disappoint investors this time around. Even though rising inflation should put upward pressure on home prices, the twin forces of record-high foreclosures and consumers reducing their debt loads are expected to mute price gains for several years, says Milton Ezrati , senior economist at asset manager Lord Abbett. That's a far cry from the 1970s, when the median home price rose 43%, according to U.S. Census data.
Gold is another traditional inflation hedge that might be less effective now. With prices already having more than quadrupled over the past nine years, many strategists see substantial inflation already factored into the price.