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* Inflation: The Next Scourge?

I have included the following article with the permission of Bert Whitehead, the author.

Bert Whitehead, M.B.A., J.D. © 2009 – May 9th

The stock market (S&P 500) closed on May 8 ahead of where it was at the beginning of the year. Since the low point on Mar. 9 it has risen 37%. Keep in mind that the stock market is a leading indicator. If recent trends are not a ‘false bottom’ the recession should end in 9 to 18 months, based on historical performance. Of course, we have been reminded that history is not a trustworthy predictor of future results…

There are other signs that the economy is starting to bounce back. Unemployment isn’t rising as fast as it has been, some companies are showing a profit. Consumer confidence is rising. Those are positive factors.

Nonetheless, we are still mired in deflation. Prices are actually dropping (social security recipients are startled that they are not receiving a cost of living adjustment this year). Every month there have been fewer people employed. More companies are going broke, real estate is still in crisis, banks and other financial institutions still haven’t been resuscitated. Now we are seeing state and local governments get in line for federal bailouts. The rest of the world also seems to be caught in this deflationary vortex.

Just as it seems like we might be turning the corner, the pundits are already spooking us about inflation. Inflation may be our next challenge, but further deflation is more likely for the near term and very possible for even the next 10 years. It looks like two of the auto companies are going to end up being owned by the unions and the government, and the financial industry has been in effect ‘federalized.’

Skeptics question whether business decisions will now be politicized, and determined by political considerations rather than by market forces. This could result in many new cars built to be small and energy efficient, which the government wants. But in the past buyers have spurned those in favor of larger vehicles. Will overseas auto companies move in to fill the demand? Unless gasoline prices go back to $4-5/gallon, most Americans want to buy their SUV’s. If Detroit won’t make them, someone else will.

If everything keeps falling in place, and recovery is in sight, we will have to deal with the trillions of dollars in government debt. The fed has been issuing a huge increase in Treasury bonds to fund the Stimulus programs. The concern is that, if and when we do pull out of this deflationary spiral, the world will be awash in US dollars.

This could result in higher interest rates which the government would have to pay to induce people to buy US bonds. Right now, the feds are buying bonds themselves to keep long-term interest rates (and hopefully mortgage rates) down. But at some point we will have to pay the piper. That means that this increase in the money supply will create higher inflation. Or will it?

As with most economic issues, there are too many variables to predict with certainty the outcome. If the dollar drops relative to other currencies, which we would expect with inflation, our goods become cheaper for people in other countries and our exports would increase. Because imports would be more expensive here, we would reduce our trade deficit.

During the 90’s Greenspan was baffled by the low inflation we experienced relative to the growth in the money supply. When he left office, he pinned it on the higher productivity the US enjoyed because we were able to outsource low productive jobs abroad. Generally high productivity which we typically see during recessions holds down inflation. During our current recession we have seen productivity increase, as companies shed less productive jobs.

Another factor is the savings rate of citizens. Japan had virtually no inflation in the 90’s when they increased their national debt exponentially to stimulate their economy. But because their savings rate increased, the extra money supply wasn’t spent and prices stayed level. We are now experiencing a significant increase in consumer savings, and we see a reduction in debt (partly because it’s too hard to get a loan now!). Unless the increased money supply is actually spent, there aren’t more dollars chasing too few goods.

The reality is that inflation will be our next threat if the government keeps spending at the rate they have been. There are factors which may absorb the impact of inflation, so it is not certain how much it will affect us.

In balancing portfolios to protect clients against inflation, we focus on the asset classes which provide the best buffers. Cash and inflation adjusted savings bonds are effective as their yield increases along with inflation. Mortgaged real estate is one of the best protections. While real estate is a long-term inflation hedge, it is too regional to reliably provide much protection unless it is mortgaged at a long-term fixed rate. Unhedged foreign equity mutual funds can be a buffer, except (as we have seen lately) world currencies have been moving up and down together. In some situations we recommend clients buy gold bullion coins.

Inflation is likely to drive interest rates higher, so some clients become concerned because the nominal value of their Treasury bonds drop. Not to worry: the bond will be worth its face value on maturity, and that is what we count on to provide the guaranteed cash flow for your retirement.

Many clients are taking advantage of the lower stock prices now to increase their dollar-cost-averaging into stocks. We are recommending to others that it is a good time to refinance their homes at lower rates to decrease their needed cash flow. When we meet with you next we will look forward to reviewing your portfolio relative to your current situation. We are proud that our clients’ portfolios have weathered this ‘storm of the century’ relatively unscathed and look forward to moving on with you on your journey to “FIPOM” (Financial Independence and Peace of Mind)!

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