Inflation is Knocking
Inflation hasn’t really been on anybody’s radar for decades. Aside from a brief period in the late 2000s when I distinctly remember dreading filling my car up with gas or opening my electric bill, we haven’t seen inflation run about 4% since the late 1980s. That could soon change though, and you’re probably unprepared.
I’m not saying that inflation is going to explode tomorrow, but all signs are pointing to growing trouble. After years of prices that barely moved and some months of outright deflation, things started turning in the back half of 2016. Over those six months, consumer prices were growing at an average annual rate of 2.7%. That probably doesn’t sound like much, but consumer price inflation was averaging just 0.7% in 2015 and just 0.9% over the trailing year to March. Put in that context, that’s a big jump.
Producer prices, which measure what businesses pay for raw materials at wholesale prices, paint a similar picture. Their 1.7% rise over the past six months doesn’t sound particularly ominous, but they were falling in 2015 and over the trailing year to March. Those increases were just confined to food and energy either, but were more widespread across a whole host of products and services.
What’s driving those price increases? A perfect inflationary storm.
While U.S .GDP growth has been relatively anemic over the past few years, our economy has been growing. While unemployment ticked up a one-tenth of a percent in December to 4.7%, the economy added 156,000 jobs in the month. That means unemployment rose because more people were drawn into the labor market. That’s a good thing because it helped drive wages up by about a dime an hour, with total wage growth of 2.9% last year, the fastest growth in several years.
While the Fed is finally raising interest rates to try to keep inflation in check, the current rate is set at between 0.5% and 0.75%. Even if the Fed does raise rates three times this year like it’s said it would, I seriously doubt the rate will keep up with the rate of inflation or come anywhere near its 5.8% average over the past 40 years.
There’s also a lot of excess cash sloshing around the U.S. economy that the Fed’s going to be slow to drain. The Fed’s balance sheet ballooned from about $900 billion before the financial crisis to $4.5 trillion today. I don’t see any conceivable way the Fed can drain that off in time to keep inflation in check without causing Volcker-style disruptions, something the central bank will be loath to do.
Throw in the infrastructure spending which would add more money to the economy, coupled with the tax cuts that the incoming Trump administration is talking about and you have virtually guaranteed inflation.
Bonds and inflation don’t play well together, so those worries are likely a driving force behind the recent Treasury sell-off. Institutional investors have been dumping 30-year and 10-year Treasuries en masse, pushing the 10-year yield up to 2.38%. Bond king Bill Gross, whose crown may be slightly tarnished, predicts we’ll see a bear market in bonds if the 10-year yield breaks above 2.6%. Gold has also been holding near a six-week high, a safe haven play that shows investors are wising up to inflation worries.
For now there isn’t much we can do but wait and see how things shake out, but I definitely start paying attention to inflation measures like the consumer and producer price indexes if you haven’t already been. And we have a number of funds we recommend as inflation hedges in our Personal Finance Funds Portfolio (appearing on Page 11 of every issue).
I’d recommend you start adding some of these to your portfolio, if you haven’t already. We’ll be providing ongoing coverage of inflation and how to protect your portfolio against it.