How quickly things change.
Two years ago, the New York Times reported, “Federal Reserve officials are increasingly worried that inflation is too low and could leave the central bank with less room to maneuver in an economic downturn.”1 More recently, a Wall Street Journal article presented a sharply different view, with a headline that likely touched a raw nerve among investors: “Everything Screams Inflation.” The author, a veteran financial columnist, observed, “We could be at a generational turning point for finance. Politics, economics, international relations, demography and labor are all shifting to supporting inflation.”2
Is inflation headed higher? In the short term, it has already moved that way. With many firms now reporting strong demand for goods and services following the swift collapse in business activity last year, prices are rising—sometimes substantially. Is this a negative? It depends on where one sits in the economic food chain. Airlines are once again enjoying fully booked flights, and many restaurants are struggling to hire cooks and waiters. We should not be surprised that airfares and steak dinners cost more than they did a year ago. Or that stock prices for JetBlue Airways and The Cheesecake Factory surged over 150% from their lows in the spring of 2020.3
Do such price increases signal a coming wave of broad and persistent inflation or just a temporary snapback following the unusually sharp economic downturn in 2020? We simply don’t know. But future inflation is just one of many factors that investors take into account. The market’s job is to take positive information, such as exciting new products, substantial sales gains, and dividend increases, and balance it against negative information, like falling profits, wars, and natural disasters, to arrive at a price every day that both buyers and sellers deem fair.
The future is always uncertain. But willingness to bear uncertainty is the key reason investors have the opportunity for profit.
Let us assume for the moment that rising inflation persists into the future. Some investors might want to hedge against higher inflation, while others might see it as a market-timing signal and make changes to their investment portfolios. But for the market timers to do so successfully, they would need a trading rule that directs exactly when and how to revise the portfolio—“I’ll know it when I see it” is not a strategy. A trading rule based on inflation estimates, however, is just a market-timing strategy dressed in different clothes. A successful effort requires two correct predictions: when to revise the portfolio and when to change it back.
It’s not enough to be negative on the outlook for stocks or bonds in the face of disconcerting information regarding inflation (or anything else). Current prices already reflect such concerns. To justify switching a portfolio, one needs to be even more negative than the average investor. And then outsmart the crowd once again when the time appears right to switch back. Rinse and repeat.
The evidence of success in pursuing such timing strategies—by individuals and professionals alike—is conspicuous by its absence.
To illustrate the problem, imagine it’s New Year’s Day 1979. The broad US stock market4 produced a positive return in 1978 but failed to keep pace with inflation for the second year in a row. Your crystal ball informs you that the next two years will see back-to-back double-digit inflation for the first time since World War I.
What would you do? You have painful memories of 1974, when the inflation-adjusted total return for US stocks was –35.05%, among the five worst returns in data going back to 1926.
We suspect many investors would sell stocks in anticipation of significantly lower security prices over the subsequent two years. The result? Most likely a failure to capture above-average returns from both the equity and size dimensions, as shown in Exhibit 1.