Our Take on Inflation

It's worth what reviewing what rising prices might mean for stock investors.

Inflation may be subdued today, but the debate over inflation is anything but tame. Pessimists, such as hedge-fund manager Julian Robertson, of Tiger Management, say rampant inflation is a looming threat. “I ask anyone to give me an example of an economy beefed up by huge amounts of fiscal and monetary stimulus that did not inflate tremendously when the economy improved,” he recently told us.

Optimists like David Herro, co-manager of Oakmark International fund, disagree. “The global economy is soft, and there’s excess capacity, so I believe inflation is still preventable,” says Herro.

Gold advocates. The debate over gold, considered an excellent inflation hedge by some, is equally lively. Top investors, such as Paulson & Co.’s John Paulson and Greenlight Capital’s David Einhorn, placed big bets on gold in 2009. Einhorn explained his rationale at the recent Value Investing Congress: “Gold does well when monetary and fiscal policies are poor and does poorly when they appear sensible. Prospectively, gold should do fine unless our leaders implement much greater fiscal and monetary restraint than appears likely.”

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At the same conference, Bill Ackman, of Pershing Square Capital Management, said he avoids gold because it is “a greater-fool investment.” In other words, making money on the yellow metal is less a function of a rise in its fundamental value and more a function of finding someone who is willing to pay you more for it. Tiger’s Robertson describes his aversion to gold similarly: “It’s less a supply-demand situation and more a psychological one -- better a psychiatrist to invest in gold than me.”

Because inflation hasn’t afflicted America in some 30 years, it’s worth reviewing what rising prices might mean for stock investors. In a 1977 article on the subject in Fortune, Warren Buffett went to great lengths to disabuse shareholders of the notion that they could skate through inflationary times unscathed. He wrote that companies have little ability to improve returns on capital when inflation is high, so investors aren’t willing to pay as much for each dollar of corporate earnings. The subpar, 5.2% annualized return for Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index from 1973 through the end of 1981, a span during which inflation rates often hit double digits, provides ample support for that argument (adjusted for inflation, stock returns were negative).

We’d love for policymakers to successfully reignite the U.S. economy without also rekindling inflation. However, the more prudent course is to assume that all won’t go smoothly.

What do we recommend? We respect many of those who advocate gold, but, like Ackman and Robertson, we believe it’s too difficult to assign a value to the metal. Instead, we prefer high-quality companies with significant foreign exposure and the ability to raise prices. Both Microsoft (symbol MSFT) and Pfizer (PFE) recently reported better-than-expected earnings that signal the resiliency of each company’s business. In Microsoft’s case, those results don’t yet reflect the launch of its Windows 7 operating system, which we think will result in much better profits than analysts expect.

You can also hedge against rising inflation by investing in businesses tied to natural resources, from crude oil to agricultural commodities. One favorite in this category is Contango Oil & Gas (MCF), which explores for energy mostly in the Gulf of Mexico.

More-adventurous investors who believe that higher inflation will lead to higher interest rates can bet against long-term U.S. Treasury securities through options and various exchange-traded funds (bond prices generally fall when rates rise). For example, we’ve shorted iShares Barclays 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF (TLT), which is designed to gain value when yields fall and Treasury-bond prices rise. If inflation rises rapidly and rates follow suit, Treasury bonds will perform poorly.

Columnists Whitney Tilson and John Heins co-edit Value Investor Insight and SuperInvestor Insight. Funds co-managed by Tilson own shares of the stocks mentioned above.

John Heins
Contributing Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance