How to Invest During Inflation

By Brian O'Connell · November 21, 2022 · 7 minute read

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How to Invest During Inflation

Inflation occurs when there is a widespread rise in the prices of goods and services. The inflation rate, or the rate at which prices increase, was rising throughout 2022 at the fastest pace in 40 years. That has an impact on both consumers and investors. High inflation makes common goods like groceries, gasoline, and rent more expensive for consumers, meaning paychecks might not go as far if wages don’t rise along with prices.

For investors, high inflation can also affect the financial markets. Traditionally, rising inflation has tempered stock market growth, as consumers have less money to spend, and the Federal Reserve may step in to check rising inflation by making loans and credit more expensive with higher interest rates. What’s an investor do when inflation is on the upswing? Often, it means adjusting investment portfolios to protect assets against rising prices and an uncertain economy.

Investing & Inflation: How Are They Related?

Inflation’s Impact on Stock and Bond Investments

Investing during inflation can be tricky. It’s important to know that inflation impacts both stock and bond markets, but in different ways.

Inflation and the Stock Market

Inflation has an indirect impact on stocks, partially reflecting consumer purchasing power. As prices rise, retail investors may have less money to put into the stock market, reducing market growth.

Perhaps more importantly, high inflation may cause the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates to cool down the economy. Higher interest rates also make stock market investments less attractive to investors, as they can get higher returns in lower-risk assets like bonds.

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Also, when inflation rises, that puts pressure on investors’ stock market returns to keep up with the inflation rate. For instance, consider a stock portfolio that earns 5% before inflation. If inflation rises at a 6.0% rate, the portfolio actually loses 1.0% on an inflation-adjusted basis.

However, some stocks and other assets can perform well in periods of rising prices, which can be a hedge against inflation. When inflation hits the consumer economy, companies boost the prices of their goods and services to keep profits rolling, as their cost of doing business rises at the same time. Consequently, rising prices contribute to higher revenues, which helps boost a company’s stock price. Investors, after all, want to be in business with companies with robust revenues.

Overall, rising inflation raises the investment risk of an economic slowdown or recession. That scenario doesn’t bode well for strong stock market performance, as uncertainty about the overall economy tends to curb market growth, thus reducing company earnings which leads to sliding equity prices.

Inflation and the Bond Market

Inflation may be a drag on bond market performance, as well. Most bonds like U.S. Treasury, corporate, or municipal bonds offer a fixed rate of return, paid in the form of interest or coupon payments. As fixed-income securities offer stable, but fixed, investment returns, rising inflation can eat at those returns, further reducing the purchasing power of bond market investors.

Additionally, the Federal Reserve’s response to inflation — higher interest rates — can lower the price of bonds because there is an inverse relationship between bond yields and bond prices. So, bond investors and bond funds may experience losses because of high interest rates.

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What to Invest in During Inflation

Investors can take several steps to protect their portfolios during periods of high inflation. Choosing what to invest in during inflation is like selecting investments at any other time — you’ll need to evaluate the asset itself and how it fits into your overall portfolio strategy both now and in the future.

1. Retail Stocks

Investors might consider stocks where the underlying company can boost prices in times of rising inflation. Retail stocks, like big box stores or discount retailers with a global brand and a massive customer base, can be potential investments during high inflation periods. In that scenario, the retailer could raise prices and not only cover the cost of rising inflation but also continue to earn profits in a high inflation period.

2. Consumer Goods Stocks

Think of a consumer goods manufacturer that already has a healthy portion of the toothpaste or shampoo market and doesn’t need excess capital as it’s already well-invested in its own business. Companies with low capital needs tend to do better in inflationary periods, as they don’t have to invest more cash into the business to keep up with competitors — they already have a solid market position and the means to produce and market their products.

3. Commodities

Investing in precious metals, oil and gas, gold, and other commodities can also be good inflation hedges. The price growth of many commodities contributes to high inflation. So investors may see returns by investing in commodities during high inflationary periods. Take the price of oil, natural gas, and gasoline. Businesses and consumers rely highly on oil and gas and will likely keep filling up the tank and heating their homes, even if they have to pay higher prices. That makes oil — and other commodities — a good portfolio component when inflation is on the move.

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4. Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS)

Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) can be a good hedge against inflation. By design, TIPS are like most bonds that pay investors a fixed rate twice annually. They’re also protected against inflation as the principal amount of the securities is adjusted for inflation.

5. I Bonds

During periods of high inflation, investors may consider investing in Series I Savings Bonds, commonly known as I Bonds. I Bonds are indexed to inflation like TIPS, but the interest rate paid to investors is adjustable. With an I bond, investors earn both a fixed interest rate and a rate that changes with inflation. The U.S. Treasury sets the inflation-adjusted interest rate on I Bonds twice a year.

Inflation Basics, Explained

Inflation is primarily defined as a continuing rise in prices. Some inflation is okay — historically, economic booms have come with an annual inflation rate of about 1% to 2%, a range that reflects solid consumer sentiment amidst a growing economy. An inflation rate of 5% or more can be a different story, with higher rates associated with an overheated economy.

Inflation rates often correlate to economic growth, which is sometimes good for consumers. When economic growth occurs, consumers and businesses have more money and tend to spend it. When cash flows through the economy, demand for goods and services grows, leading food and services producers to raise prices. That triggers a rise in inflation, with the inflation rate growing even more as demand for goods and services outpaces supply.

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Conversely, prices fall when demand slides and supply is abundant; the inflation rate tumbles as economic growth wanes.

The main barometer of inflation in the United States is the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The CPI encompasses the retail price of goods and services in common sectors such as housing, healthcare, transportation, food and beverage, and education, among other economic sectors. The Federal Reserve uses a similar index, the Personal Consumption Expenditures Price Index (PCE), in its inflation-related measurements. Economists and investors track inflation on both a monthly and an annual basis.

The Takeaway

Investors should proceed with caution when inflation rises. It may be tempting to readjust your portfolio because prices are rising. However, massive changes to a well-planned portfolio may do more harm than good, especially if you are investing with a long time horizon. Periods of high inflation usually wane, so throwing a long-term investment plan out the window just because inflation is moving upward may knock you off course to meet your long-term financial goals.

If you’re ready to build a solid portfolio to meet your long-term financial goals, a great place to start is with a SoFi Invest® online brokerage account. With SoFi, you can trade stocks and exchange-traded funds (ETFs) with no commissions for as little as $5.

Take a step toward reaching your financial goals with SoFi Invest.

Photo credit: iStock/pondsaksit

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