investor daily logo
Inflationary landscape leaves much to consider 

Inflationary landscape leaves much to consider 

By Jonathan Armitage
8 minute read

I first mentioned the topic of inflation in 2020 and I am aware that raising the subject of inflation, in the middle of a pandemic that crunched economic activity, may have seemed a touch unusual. However, there’s now growing investment industry recognition that inflationary pressures are on the upswing and the world’s long holiday from destructive inflation, which dates to the 1980s, appears to be winding down.

This has important bond and sharemarket implications and thus for investors’ portfolios. Let me begin with the bond market.  

Complicating assessments of how bond markets may behave should higher inflation emerge is the realisation that “price discovery” – the process by which market prices adjust in response to information changes – has been absent from the bond market for some time.  

Instead, bonds have traded on “forward guidance” (where the US Federal Reserve [the Fed] charts what they believe, on current information, will be the path for future interest rates), and been heavily influenced by central bank intervention through quantitative easing (QE).   


These two forces, in combination, have pushed down bond yields (pushed up bond prices) to levels barely imaginable by previous generations of bond investors.  

For the record, current Fed guidance is for no increase in official US interest rates until 2024. To be clear, “guidance” doesn’t equal a guarantee. Nevertheless, all this has subdued price discovery and resulted in bond market instability.  

Unexpected changes in forward guidance (or dialling down QE) could have outsized impacts on bond prices as investors have been unable to work out the “fair” price for bonds due to these interventions and policies. 

This matters, as central banks are about to face off against an uptick in inflation. What happens then? 

Will higher inflation be transitory or persistent? 

Annual US inflation, as measured by Consumer Price Index (CPI) movements, is poised to blow through the 2 per cent mark; 2 per cent typically being the level considered consistent with price stability. The pandemic caused an abrupt price decline last year as the global economy came to a halt. This created an artificially low base from which prices can rise as the vaccine roll-out and government stimulus reignite spending activity. 

The first-quarter 2021 report on economic growth, released in late April by the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, said prices grew at a 3.5 per cent annualised rate in the March quarter and are up 1.7 per cent from a year earlier. This sizeable price rise is largely attributable to the base effect stemming from last year’s price collapse.  

Base effects, however, are not the only explanation for inflationary pressures. Supply constraints arising from the pandemic have seen shortages in certain sectors, resulting in price increases also.  

For example, there’s a global shortage of microchips, which affects industries from autos to TVs.  

Investment legend Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway conglomerate is active in many US industries noted: “We’re seeing very substantial inflation. It’s very interesting. We’re raising prices. People are raising prices to us, and it’s being accepted.”

No doubt, some shortages will be overcome as resources gradually come back online, and so some price increases will be transient in nature.  

However, some companies and industries will aim to address their supply vulnerabilities – perhaps by looking for suppliers closer to home – to avoid being caught out again and this will come at a cost. Think of it as companies moving from “just in time” production to “just in case” production. 

How much of this cost can be absorbed by companies in lower profit margins or passed on to customers as higher prices, will take time to assess. But these effects are unlikely to be temporary. 

Another contributor to inflationary pressures has been the level of stimulus provided by governments putting money into people’s pockets and increasing disposable incomes by doing so. It means that pent-up demand, as economies reopen, is chasing constrained supply in certain sectors, increasing prices.  

Again, these could be temporary but once a company has made the decision to put prices up, they tend to be reluctant to lower them again absent an economic shock. Price rises tend to be sticky. 

Bond and sharemarket implications 

Inflation is bad for bond prices as their regular interest payments become less valuable in an environment where prices are going up. In a normal functioning market with price discovery, we would expect bond prices to adjust lower to reflect the inflationary pressures. 

Central banks, led by the Fed, are making reassuring statements that a rise in inflation will be  temporary, and inflation will return to a comforting 2 per cent. Based on current information, this may be a valid assessment. However, if the information changes so will investor views and potentially so might central bank actions.  

Recent unguarded remarks by US Treasury secretary Janet Yellen, who previously headed the US Federal Reserve, give an inkling into thinking at the highest levels of American policymaking when she said that US interest rates may need to rise to prevent the economy from expanding too rapidly. 

The US Federal Reserve – not the US Treasury Department – sets American interest rate policy, but Ms Yellen’s remarks fuelled concerns that policymakers believe the economy is at risk of growing too quickly and may need to be slowed down, perhaps by interest rate rises. 

President Joe Biden has proposed more than US$4 trillion in additional spending programs that would be infused into the economy over the course of the decade. The White House says those programs will be paid for with new taxes. Those tax hikes could in theory reduce their inflationary impact because the government would be taking about as much money out of the economy as it is putting in. 

But the administration has proposed levying those taxes on corporations and high-income Americans, meaning the hikes may do little to slow economic demand because the rich spend a smaller portion of their income than do recipients of the new federal programs. 

Regardless of the fate of President Biden’s proposals, as of now, expectations for higher US inflation, whether temporary or not, also have implications for shares.  

This can be done by unpacking what’s happened in the US S&P 500 Index; overall earnings are down around 9 per cent since last year yet share prices are up about 35 per cent over the same period! This has been made possible by the price-earnings (PE) multiple expanding from 18 to 27 times. 

The elevated PE multiple will be at risk if inflation increases. Our research suggests PE multiples are negatively impacted by rising inflation – any increase in inflation results in a decrease in PE multiples. To be clear, the research is not saying inflation is bad for shares, but it is bad for PE multiples. 

This makes intuitive sense as increasing inflation is a potentially unrewarded risk factor for a stock.  

Some companies will have the pricing power to pass on increased input costs and others will have to absorb them as reduced profit margins. The added risk of determining how each company will navigate this dynamic could be reflected by investors assigning lower valuation multiples on the earnings to compensate for uncertainty.  

We may enter an environment where companies still deliver on their expected earnings growth, but markets don’t move or perhaps even fall as the valuation multiples paid for those earnings contract.  

Jonathan Armitage, chief investment officer, MLC Asset Management 

Important information 

This information is provided by MLC Investments Limited, ABN 30 002 641 661 AFSL 230705, “MLC” or “we”. MLC is a wholly  owned subsidiary within the National Australia Bank Limited Group of companies (“NAB Group”). No company in the NAB Group guarantees the capital value, payment of income or performance of any financial product referred to in this communication, nor do those products represent a deposit with or a liability of any member of the NAB Group.  

This information included in this communication is general in nature. It has been prepared without taking account of an investor’s objectives, financial situation or needs and because of that an investor should, before acting on the advice, consider the appropriateness of the advice having regard to their personal objectives, financial situation and needs.  

MLC is the issuer of units in the “multi-asset portfolios” (MLC Wholesale Funds) mentioned in this communication  MLC  Wholesale Inflation Plus funds, Horizon funds and Index Plus funds. The Product Disclosure Statements (PDSs) for the MLC  Wholesale Funds are available on request by phoning 132 652 or on our website at mlcam.com.au. You should consider the relevant PDS before deciding whether to acquire or continue to hold units in a fund. 

Any opinions expressed in this presentation constitute our judgement at the time of issue and are subject to change. We believe that the information contained in this presentation is correct and that any estimates, opinions, conclusions or recommendations are reasonably held or made at the time of compilation. However, no warranty is made as to their accuracy.