May 9, 2022

Building inflation protection into portfolios requires broad diversification across a number of asset classes and strategies.

As a consequence of unprecedented levels of accommodative monetary policy during the pandemic, inflation is now rearing its head swiftly and extremely, further exacerbated by surging energy and food costs, extended periods of supply chain disruptions and major geopolitical events. Beyond these very short-term drivers, we believe long-term inflation risk has increased due to a number of structural reasons, as outlined below.                        

Portfolio construction needs to reflect increased inflation risk. Traditional portfolios, dominated by equities and bonds, have performed exceptionally well through the benign environment of disinflationary growth and negative equity-bond correlations over the last decade. But in an environment of persistently higher and more volatile inflation, such portfolios could suffer if not pro-actively positioned for different inflation scenarios. 

Factors that determine the course of inflation

Figure 1
Long term secular forces driving disinflation could be turning the other way now. After decades of globalisation, the world is becoming more factionalised; monetary and fiscal coordination of the last two years has set a precedent for the future and investments required for the energy transition will be inflationary as well. It is unclear whether traditional disinflationary forces such as technology will be able to offset this.

Drivers of disinflationary pressures

An ageing population could lead to lower demand as consumption decreases but there is material uncertainty over the impact of demographics on inflation.

An influx of labour from low cost countries as the world globalised kept a lid on inflation but this could change if countries like China are ageing and globalisation peaks.

High private sector is disinflationary as de-leveraging reduces demand but debt has now shifted to public sector.

Automation and productivity could increase.

Drivers of inflationary pressures 

A decade of underinvestment in traditional energy sources and geopolitical tensions increase the risk of future energy price shocks. 

Cost of innovation in, and the development of, alternative sources of energy at scale.

High levels of government debt increases incentives for debt monetisation.

Precedent of helicopter money was set in 2020/2021 and could be repeated in future. 

A massive disinflationary driver peaking at best or even going into reverse at worst.

The impact of inflation on conventional portfolios 

Many portfolios have been constructed during and for disinflationary environments. Dominated by equities and bonds and alternative asset classes like private equity, real assets and more aggressive credit-oriented fixed income strategies, they have performed strongly throughout the past two decades. The secular trend of declining yields increased discounted values of dividends and coupon payments was an additional tailwind.

An environment of structurally higher inflation changes this equation. First of all, portfolios need to be better positioned for inflation eroding real returns and have sufficient exposure to asset classes that keep up with inflation. Second, portfolios need to not just position for recurring transitions between recessionary and non-inflationary growth environments (bottom of the chart) but add an inflation dimension (top of the chart). 

Figure 2

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Inflation sensitivities for selected asset classes based on historical data, calculated by asset manager Pimco. The chart shows that gold, commodities and natural resources equities have high inflation sensitivity. Traditional asset classes such as nominal bonds and broad equities have lower inflation sensitivity.

Structurally higher inflation also impacts portfolio constructions beyond just protecting portfolios against the direct consequences of inflation.  

Portfolio diversification was supported by the typically negative correlation between equities and fixed income in disinflationary times, especially in major stress events, when it was needed most. Why was that? With inflation being structurally low and cyclical, rising inflation was associated with economic growth that benefited equities and hurt government bonds due to central banks tightening policy preemptively and vice versa. So, when one part of the portfolio went up, the other part went down.

However, however, in an environment when inflation is structurally high, rising inflation and monetary tightening is not necessarily associated with economic growth anymore so both equities and bonds suffer at the same time. Portfolios become harder to diversify which increases complexity for portfolio construction. Asset allocators need to work much harder to build downside protection into portfolios.

Although some portfolios will employ inflation protection through investing in inflation-linked bonds, which also come with limitations, few portfolios appear comprehensively hedged against a broader range of inflation scenarios that we may now be facing.

How to assess the direction of prices

Scenario analysis is particularly useful at times like these, when the probability of a regime shift — specifically, a shift to a higher inflation regime — has increased. History has shown us how frequently regimes have shifted between secular inflation and disinflation.

This has informed our decision to allow for future inflation regimes to be materially different from that of the past four decades, even though a return to a benign disinflationary environment is also a possibility.

Figure 3 considers different scenarios of how economies and markets could behave under different conditions. These are forward-looking assessments set over a three-year time horizon. They span inflationary and disinflationary conditions, cost-push and demand-pull drivers of inflation, and strong and weak growth, factoring in the influence of central bank and government policy.

Our Inflation protection — building robust portfolios report provides more detail on how we expect different strategies to perform across these different scenarios over a three-year time horizon.

Figure 3
Inflation comes in different forms and economic environments, each of which will have a different impact on asset classes. There is no silver bullet asset class that protects against all inflation environments at once, a diversified approach is required.
Figure 4
This chart shows what drives inflation in each of our scenarios. For example, in the goldilocks scenario inflationary pressure is driven by economic growth but largely offset by disinflationary pressure from technological productivity gains whereas policy, supply costs and labour costs have neither a disinflationary nor an inflationary impact.

Defining your inflation protection strategy 

There is no single strategy that best protects against all these inflationary scenarios, meaning that a diversified blend of asset classes and strategies is required to provide broad inflation protection for portfolios.

Most sophisticated, institutional portfolios already have assets that protect against growth-oriented and/or long-term inflation scenarios, such as infrastructure or real estate, which they could complement with commodity-oriented strategies. Other inflationary scenarios, especially stagflation, leave most portfolios vulnerable. Here, commodity-oriented strategies and gold may prove valuable additions to portfolios.

Scenarios in which inflation is met with an aggressive rate response as experienced in 2022 leave portfolios vulnerable to duration risk. They are first a reminder to revisit traditional downside protection sleeves, but they also highlight the potential benefits of floating-rate fixed income assets to portfolios.

Ultimately, the mix of assets appropriate for an investor will depend on a range of factors, including the investor’s existing asset mix and time horizon, under which scenarios the portfolio is most vulnerable, and other investor-specific constraints — such as sensitivity to climate transition risks and ESG considerations. 

Questions to help guide inflation protection strategies 

  • What inflation-sensitive assets already exist in the portfolio, such as equities and real assets?
  • Over which time horizon these inflation-sensitive assets provide protection?
  • Under which economic scenario the portfolio most vulnerable?
  • The type of inflation protection needed; that is, general CPI or specific types (education, healthcare)?
  • The liquidity budget and its impact on the ability to invest in private assets with longer lock-up periods?
  • The governance budget and thus tolerance for complexity and monitoring of strategies?
  • The importance of environment, social and governance (ESG) and non-financial considerations?

Three considerations when reviewing your inflation risks 

  1. Inflation is not a homogenous phenomenon
    It can manifest in different ways, and the risk posed by different scenarios evolves over time. 
  2. There is no silver-bullet strategy
    That works all the time and across all scenarios, a diversified exposure across a range of assets is a more pragmatic solution. 
  3. Traditional portfolios
    Dominated by equities and fixed income are ill-suited for inflation.
Nick White
Chris Canstein
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