WHEN WE DISCUSS investment performance, we typically talk about nominal returns. But as an investor looking to increase your wealth, what you should care about are real returns, which are your results over and above inflation.
Over the 50 years through year-end 2020, inflation climbed at 3.8% a year, as measured by CPI-U, the most widely used measure. But there’s been a notable deceleration in recent decades. Average annual inflation ran at 7.4% in the 1970s, 5.1% in the 1980s, 2.9% in the 1990s, 2.6% in the 2000s and 1.7% in the 2010s. Some observers worry that years of loose central bank monetary policy and federal government deficit spending will reignite inflation. But for now, inflation remains fairly subdued, with consumer prices climbing 1.3% in 2020.
Lower inflation is typically good for investors, because it’s a sign of economic stability—an environment where financial markets tend to flourish. Folks are also less likely to notch investment gains, only to discover that those gains are matched by inflation, so they’re no better off in real terms. Factor in taxes, and things might be even worse. Let’s say you sell a stock that’s climbed 10% in a period when inflation rose 9%. After paying 15% in long-term capital gains taxes, you would be left with 8.5%, below the inflation rate.
The decelerating inflation of recent decades has been especially good news for bond investors. Most bonds pay a fixed rate of interest, so inflation represents an unrecoverable subtraction from a bond investor’s real return—unless that inflation subsequently turns to deflation.
By contrast, stocks can fare okay if inflation is high. Initially, accelerating inflation may depress share prices. But corporations can typically adjust to higher inflation, by raising the price they charge for their goods and services, thus compensating for any increase in wages and the cost of materials. That means corporate earnings can continue to grow faster than inflation. Assuming share prices rise along with those higher corporate earnings, stock investors will enjoy inflation-beating gains.
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