Stocks to fight inflation

Are we facing inflation or deflation? It's the biggest debate in investment right now. Chris Mayer explains why he is betting on inflation – here’s his strategy to beat it.

"What marks our Great Recession for greatness is neither the loss of jobs nor the shrinkage in GDP, but the immensity of the federal response to those afflictions. The scale of the government's intervention is much more than unprecedented. Before 2008, it was unimaginable."

- Grant's Interest Rate Observer, April 3, 2009

Earlier this month, I was at Grant's Spring Investment Conference in Manhattan, where I met several of my readers. At our lunch table, the big topic of discussion was the inflation-deflation debate.

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Inflation, for our purposes, means prices and interest rates are rising, and the purchasing power of money is falling. Deflation is the opposite: Prices for most things fall, interest rates fall, and the purchasing power of money rises.

Over the last year, deflationary forces prevailed. The price of homes, commodities, shipping rates, gasoline even wages generally fell. Interest rates keep going lower. I just redid my mortgage for 4.25%, no points, over 15 years. The dollar perversely, given how our government treats it has gained strength.

This will be a huge decision for investors over the coming years. If inflation prevails, then commodities, for instance, will do very well. Bonds will do horribly. If we have deflation, commodities will likely suffer, and bonds will do well. Making the right decision will mean the difference between a large and growing retirement portfolio and a tiny, inflation-ravaged portfolio.

"I think there has to be inflation," said the lady to my left. "With all the spending and what the Fed is doing... there is no way around it."

I agreed that inflation will be the ultimate result. But the question is how long between now and then? If we have deflation for the next two years, for example, that will be very painful for many investment ideas.

"Yes," the guy on my right said. "If you knew we were going to have another year of deflation, then you would do some things differently."

I can't resolve this debate here. But I can tell you I've given it a great deal of thought. As a result, I fall in the inflation camp. Much of the reasoning behind that has to do with the government's response to this crisis. It has been more than unprecedented, as Jim Grant recently noted in his newsletter.

Grant goes on to note that the combination of fiscal and monetary stimulus comes to about one-quarter of the size of the US economy (as measured by GDP). And that does not take into account all of the guarantees of bank deposits, money market accounts, bank bonds, and other liabilities.

Currencies don't react well to being treated like this. Right now, the dollar is holding up because people are fearful... and debts need repaying. Cash is dear. But that will not persist for long especially with stimulus as great as it has been. Never in the history of paper currencies has a single currency consistently appreciated in value over time. Never.

That's why I recommend you fall on the side of owning "real assets" through the stock market in order to protect yourself from inflation. I like owning energy fields, gold mines, water rights, and the producers of agricultural fertiliser. After suffering a big correction in 2008, these assets are cheap right now. They'll hold their value much better than your bank CDs during inflationary times.

Don't worry about not having physical possession of these assets. As Jean-Marie Eveillard, the great money manager at First Eagle, reminded conference attendees: "Stocks are claims on real assets; they are not just paper."

The kinds of stocks I just listed which deal in tangible goods that cannot be easily reproduced will do very well in the coming years. If you come down on the side of inflation, start your "wealth protection" strategy here.

This article was written by Chris Mayer for the free investment newsletter DailyWealth and was first published on 18 April 2009