For the first time in a long time, concerns about inflation are intensifying as the economy strengthens. Even rate changes could be on the table as former Federal Reserve chair and current Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said that interest rates might need to rise.
As Bank of America pointed out in a recent research note, mentions of inflation on earnings calls are up 800% year over year. Higher prices of raw materials is pushing up the cost of food at the grocery store too.
This level of change may be unfamiliar to some investors.
"If you think about the past 10, 15, 20 years, most of the talk about potential falling markets has been because of too little growth, right, or a more deflationary type environment," Brent Schutte, Northwestern Mutual Wealth Management Company’s chief investment strategist, told Yahoo Finance Live. "Now I think the other side of the distribution is in play. The big question over the coming quarters is, do we get too much growth? Do we get too much inflation?"
According to Schutte, investors need to hedge for inflation, again, potentially for the first time in decades.
“So, you need to own things like commodities, which are going up in price quite a bit because of the rebuilding that's going on of the economy, and you need to be doing things like [Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities],” he said. “And so now it's, to me, more of a question of hedging the upside of too much, not the downside. And I think that's an area that investors need to pay heed to.”
As Nicholas Colas pointed out in the DataTrek newsletter Thursday, commodity price inflation's heat (e.g., 53% spike in plywood, 75% in cold rolled steel, and 43% in copper – all in April 2021 vs. April 2020) actually isn't uncommon and not a part of the consumer inflation metric and hasn't been so since the 90s.
“U.S. consumer inflation is not as tied to commodity prices as it once was,” Colas wrote. The wild swings that grab headlines around plywood and 2x4s may look scary, he said, but “what usually goes unmentioned is that these commodities are predisposed to wild swings.”
Still, commodities are a hot place to look for inflation defense. In a note from JPMorgan, analysts concur with Schutte’s strategy, recommending the commodities route — as well as stocks.
“One should shorten duration and reallocate from bonds to commodities and equities,” the note said. “Commodity indices (such as S&P GSCI (GD=F)) are perhaps the most direct inflation hedge.”
Which equities matter too, JPMorgan added.
“Investors should buy value and short low volatility style. Growth and quality also have negative correlation to inflation,” the note said, which means that when commodity prices rise, value stocks do better compared with growth stocks.
These are defensive plays, and what they are defending against remains to be seen. Schutte says the fact that the government is paying attention is good news.
“Even if we get inflation, at least in the near term, the Federal Reserve and other policymakers are going to look through it,” he said. “They don't want to short circuit the economy because they want to bring all those people that were mentioned in your previous commentary back to work. And they want to bring people back into the labor force.”
Still, not everyone is so sanguine.
“Fed Chair Jerome Powell is resolute in his belief that the burst of stronger inflation we are about to see will prove temporary, with underlying inflation dropping back to the 2% target next year,” wrote Capital Economics analysts in a note Thursday. “We are not convinced. Given the breadth of the upward pressure on not just prices but wages too, we believe this will develop into a sustained wage-price spiral.”