The best bet against inflation

Higher inflation rates are often in the news. Dr Benjamin Holdsworth shows why it is easy to get lost in the numbers.

Left unchecked, inflation can be a dangerous foe to the long-term investor, eroding the purchasing power of one’s hard-earned cash over time. 

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, inflation numbers have frequented the headlines. Financial stimulus around the globe has meant that more money circulating in the economy is chasing a similar, or fewer, number of goods and services, resulting in price increases.

Table 1 (below) shows the latest global annual inflation figures from the Office of National Statistics measured using the consumer price indexes (CPI). Most countries have not seen numbers this high since the early 1990s. 

Contrary to its negative implications, the consensus of economists has shifted over the years. The modern position being that a small amount of annual inflation is, in fact, desirable. 

Deflation danger

The Bank of England, for example, targets an annual inflation rate of 2%. Primarily, this is to avoid an alternative scenario where prices are falling each year and consumers are encouraged not to spend at all, but to wait until prices fall further. 

The danger with a deflationary environment is that it is a very hard cycle to get out of. Price falls tend to lead to further price falls – just ask Japan!

Although the inflation rate is generally thought of as a single number, the consumer price index in the UK is measured using around 180,000 different prices across 720 different goods and services each month. 

What is more, the ‘shopping basket’ is weighted using estimates of the average UK consumer, which is updated each year depending on spending patterns. 

This is a valid criticism of CPI indexes, as they do not account for substitutions of expensive products for less expensive ones. 

The chart above shows a breakdown of the December 2021 inflation figure and the contribution of each basket of goods or services. Around half of the 5.4% came from increases in transport and energy prices, whereas healthcare and communication services had negligible impact. 

Unique inflation rate

The reality of the chart above is that, while it provides a reasonable estimate for the average consumer, everyone is subject to their own unique inflation rate. 

For example, individuals living in older houses that are poorly insulated are likely to be feeling the effects of higher energy costs more than those living in new-builds with modern insulation and renewable energy sources. 

Similarly, as table 2 (above) shows, those that are frequent flyers –not that there are many people in this bracket at present – have experienced hefty price hikes, whereas other transport services were far less impacted. 

Despite inflation being more nuanced than just the headline figure, it is true that a general rise in prices can be uncomfortable for investors, reducing the ‘real’ (after inflation) returns earned over a given period. 

Weather the storm

That said, the systematic investment philosophy adopted in a Cavendish portfolio was built to weather such storms. Equity markets offer the opportunity to participate in the future earnings of global corporations, whose prospects rely on the goods and services they provide. 

Exposure to smaller and value companies – those that appear cheap relative to a fundamental measure such as book-value – offer the opportunity of diversification and higher expected returns. 

While no perfect inflation hedge exists – gold and commodities, for example, are no silver bullet – it is sensible to expect a well-diversified, low-cost portfolio consisting of equities and high-quality bonds to deliver above-inflation returns over the medium to long term – in other words ten years or more.

Dr Benjamin Holdsworth (right) is a director of Cavendish Medical, specialist financial planners helping consultants in private practice and the NHS

The content of this article is for inform­ation only and must not be considered as financial advice. Cavendish Medical always recommends that you seek independent financial advice before making any financial decisions.
Levels, bases of and reliefs from tax­ation may be subject to change and their value depends on the individual circumstances of the investor. The value of investments and the income from them can fluctuate and investors may get back less than the amount invested.