Most people understand that inflation increases the price of their groceries or decreases the value of the dollar in their wallet. In reality, though, inflation affects all areas of the economy — and over time, it can take a bite out of your investment returns.
Understanding the relationship between inflation and investments is essential to making informed investing decisions. Following is a high level look at how inflation generally effects different types of asset classes; for a deeper dive, check out the current pace and impact of inflation on investments.
Inflation is a rise in the average cost of goods and services over time. It’s measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which compiles data to determine the Consumer Price Index (CPI). The CPI tracks the cost of goods such as gasoline, food, clothing and automobiles over time to gauge the overall change in the price of consumer goods and services.
The normal range of inflation in the U.S. is 2-3%. However, in 2022, the cost of living as measured by the CPI rose 6.2%.1 That means overall prices increased by 6.2% for the year. As an example, a car that cost $40,000 in 2022 would cost around $44,480 in 2023.
Supply and demand play an important role in inflation. Prices tend to rise when demand for a good or service rises or supply for that same good or service falls. Many factors affect supply and demand nationally and internationally, including costs of goods and labor, taxes on income and goods, and availability of loans.
To understand how inflation can eat away at your investment returns, it’s important to differentiate between nominal and real interest rates.
Nominal interest rates must keep up with or outpace inflation for an investor to earn a real return. This means investments with lower interest rates are hit harder by the effects of inflation.
Cash and cash equivalents receive the biggest blow of all. When there’s no interest being generated to compete with the rate of inflation, it can quickly eat into the purchasing power of your cash.
Inflation can shrink your savings even if you’ve secured your funds in a savings account with an average interest rate. For example, inflation affects how much your retirement savings are worth.
In theory, when you’re working, your earnings should keep pace with inflation. When you’re living off your savings, inflation diminishes your buying power.
It’s important to monitor your savings against inflation to ensure you have enough assets to last through your retirement years. For example, if you’ need $45,000 per year to sustain your lifestyle in retirement and the annual inflation rate is 3%, you’ll need around $109,000 to have that same buying power in 30 years.2
Inflation can significantly reduce real returns on fixed income investments such as corporate or municipal bonds, treasuries, and CDs.
Typically, investors buy fixed income securities because they want a stable income stream in the form of interest payments. However, since the income stream remains the same on most fixed income securities until maturity, the purchasing power of the interest payments declines as inflation rises. As a result, bond prices tend to fall when inflation is increasing.
Consider a one-year bond with a $1,000 face value.
Accelerating inflation is even more detrimental to longer-term bonds, given the cumulative impact of lower purchasing power for cash flows received far in the future.
In theory, a company’s revenues and earnings should increase at a comparable pace as inflation. This means the price of your stock should rise along with the general prices of consumer and producer goods.
Similar to fixed income investments, however, high inflation can negatively impact nominal returns. For example, assume you have a return of 5% in your stock portfolio. If inflation is at 6%, the real return is negative.
Value stocks (companies that investors think are undervalued by the market) tend to perform better than growth stocks when inflation is high. Growth stocks (companies that investors think will deliver better-than-average returns) tend to perform better when inflation is low-normal.
Real assets, such as commodities and real estate, tend to have a positive relationship with inflation.
Commodities have historically been a reliable way to position for rising inflation. Inflation is measured by tracking the price of goods and services which often contain commodities directly, as well as products closely related to commodities. Energy-related commodities like oil have a particularly strong relationship with inflation, accounting for 7.5% of the CPI.4 Industrial and precious metals also tend to rise when inflation is accelerating.
However, commodities have important drawbacks. They tend to be more volatile than other asset classes, do not produce any income, and have historically underperformed stocks and bonds over longer time periods.
When it comes to real estate, property owners often increase rent payments in line with the CPI, which can flow through to profits and investor distributions.
Inflation can have a significant impact on your portfolio over time. Alongside working with a financial professional, consider two steps that may help protect your investments against inflation:
Inflation might be beyond your control, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take actions to help preserve your investments and savings from its effects.
Along with inflation, interest rates also have an impact on stocks, bonds and real assets. Read how interest rates affect investments.