Protect Your Money From The Fires of Inflation

Inflationary fires have been rekindled, but investors generally aren’t paying attention. For the past several years, there’s been a greater risk of prices falling than rising, breeding complacency on Wall Street.

However, you ignore inflation at your peril. The U.S. Consumer Prices Index (CPI) posted its biggest increase in nearly four years in January, jumping 0.6% last month after gaining 0.3% in December. January’s increase in the CPI was the largest since February 2013. In the 12 months through January, the CPI increased 2.5%, the biggest year-over-year gain since March 2012.

With inflation consistently hitting new highs, now’s the time to buy some insurance. Below, we explore the right inflation hedges.

The latest numbers hardly depict runaway inflation, but the CPI’s upward momentum is significant enough to warrant proactive steps to protect your portfolio.

In a shift from recent years, it isn’t just food and energy prices that are driving costs higher. About half of January’s uptick was thanks to an 8% bump in gasoline prices, although consumer prices were higher across the board. Wages are also rising at their fastest clip since the financial crisis, another sign that inflationary pressures will be mounting.

Likely to exacerbate inflationary pressures are Trump’s plans for massive increases in infrastructure and defense spending, combined with corporate and personal income tax cuts.

Rising inflation isn’t just an American phenomenon. On a year-over-year basis, Chinese producer prices were up 6.9% in January and 1.8% in the U.K. Among the few countries that isn’t seeing a healthy jump in prices is Japan. Although the world’s third-largest economy is finally breaking its deflationary trend, prices there only rose 0.3% in January. Around the world, it’s taken five years of ultra-low interest rates to finally reverse deflation.

The upshot: You should add inflation protection to your portfolio now, before inflation becomes manifestly obvious to the investment herd and the prices of these hedges increase.

Gold is the traditional haven in times of rising prices. The most convenient and cost-effective way to gain exposure to gold is through exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that hold physical bullion.

SPDR Gold Trust (NYSE: GLD) is the most popular gold-backed ETF. While it’s a fine fund, it’s not my favorite because of its 0.40% annual expense ratio. I prefer the iShares Gold Trust (NYSE: IAU) because its expenses run just 0.25%.

These two ETFs boast similar track records. With net assets of $7.8 billion, IAU has generated a year-to-date total return of 5.32%. With net assets of $31.1 billion, GLD has posted a YTD total return of 5.4%.

Most investors gravitate to GLD because it was the first gold ETF and it’s the largest, but you’re better off with IAU’s lower expense ratio. Every basis point counts when you’re holding a fund over the long haul.

My favorite inflation hedge by far is real estate. Gold prices appreciate as inflation rises, but that’s really about all the yellow metal does for you. One the other hand, real estate investment trusts (REITs) not only rise with inflation, they also pay you in the meantime.

Rising interest rates almost inevitably follow rising prices, and recent rises in inflation give the Federal Reserve political cover for further interest rate boosts this year. Rising rates aren’t exactly good news for REITs because they make borrowing for new projects more expensive. But blossoming inflation also drives rent increases, enhancing REITs’ bottom lines and dividend growth. In fact, rents are now rising at their fastest pace since the early 2000s, which in turn is fueling inflation.

The key is being selective and sticking to quality REITs. One rock-solid REIT is Realty Income (NYSE: O), which has paid more than 550 consecutive monthly dividends. Realty Income now yields just over 4% and has a proven ability to successfully navigate rising interest rates.

Also consider a REIT fund, which gives you one-stop access to a wide swath of the REIT market and, in some cases, even sports higher dividends. Notably, Vanguard REIT ETF (NYSE: VNQ) is incredibly cheap with an expense ratio of just 0.12%, and it holds more than 150 REITs in its portfolio. VNQ also yields an outsized 4.8%, providing a steady stream of income even as inflation heats up.

With inflationary pressures rising, now’s the time to act while there are still bargains out there, instead of waiting until inflation hedges get pricey.