2010-02-12

Bracing for Inflation

I'm no economist. Neither I have a crystal ball. Nonetheless, all I hear is talk about inflation. I don't know where it is, but from all I've read and thought about, one thing is clear: the US dollar will continue to lose value (as has been the case in the last 40 years or so since coming off of the gold standard), and it is likely to lose value faster than in the last ten years.

Again, I'm no economist. I don't know that there isn't a perfectly acceptable magic way out of this. But economists too have predicted seven of the last three recessions...

Anyway, it doesn't take much understanding about money to figure out that the USD is toast. With 30% of GDP compromised as debt and with the Greenspan-Guidotti rule out-of-the-whack the picture doesn't look rosy for Uncle Sam.

So what's an investor to do?

Well, by and large, nothing much one wouldn't do in normal times: buy undervalued, dividend-paying stocks. In the long run, if anything is going to hold value, it's a well run company with valuable assets (physical or intellectual) with a strong franchise.

Ok, but there might be something else investors can do to tweak their portfolios a bit: they should move their cash away from the USD and bonds and into:

  1. Diversified baskets of foreign currencies
  2. Physical assets (commodities, oil, gold)
  3. More stocks, favoring global companies with business presence in large foreign markets.

TIPS is not an unreasonable option, but being a taxable security and being tied to the official inflation rate (which is computed by those devaluing the currency), I tend to leave them as a distant fourth option.

Foreign currencies

I've discussed the role of foreign currencies before. So I'll just add that there's no reason to completely avoid emerging markets. The Brazilian Real is old news. But the Mexican Peso (FXM) pays a reasonable interest and I don't see it defaulting or going into hyper inflation anytime soon.

Physical assets

My beef with commodities and physical assets in general is their lack of dividends, lack of internal growth rate. Nonetheless, it doesn't hurt to have some as a backup plan.

My favorite commodity would be oil, given its importance as an industrial raw product and its finite production. Also, gold tends to do well in uncertain times like now.

But my favorite physical asset is really real estate. With real estate, one can obtain dividends (rent) and increase its value over time, through proper maintenance, and upgrades.

More stocks

As you may have guessed, investing in businesses is still my favorite option, be them your own business (assuming you're competent and are in a good industry) or someone else's, under the same assumptions, plus the condition that these companies trade for a discount and/or pay juicy, growing dividends.

However, there's no telling what will happen with the US or the USD. If the country defaults, we lose. If we go to war, we lose (as Phillip Fisher said in his book, "War is always bearish on money. To sell stock at the threatened or actual outbreak of hostilities so as to get into cash is extreme financial lunacy. Actually just the opposite should be done") and if do nothing, well, nothing will be resolved.

Disclosures: Long brazilian Real and global real estate.

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