We live in an era of historically low inflation rates. The chart below shows the periods of eye-watering inflation that have occurred within living memory — during these times the price of goods shot upwards and bank balances everywhere cowered in real terms. Shillings may have disappeared in 1971, but it was in the next decade that the purchasing power of cash was truly decimated. Was this a feature of a past politics and economy? Or will we see a 21st century comeback of these conditions?
One defence against inflation is Index-Linked Gilts, which yield returns linked to RPI (shown above). Alternatively, we could try to identify equity sectors that held up well in past inflationary environments. Or we could look to more exotic (read: dangerous) investments.
But I can give you one “investment” that will never lose against an inflation metric: the basket of goods used to calculate it. We simply buy the stuff, stick it in the larder and add a new asset class to our spreadsheet! We won’t tell Marie Kondo. Of course, it won’t actually be practical to store certain perishables, and we’ll likely find that a Government employee has fiddled with the basket composition by quarter-end, but I think the idea is worth entertaining for a second.
Assuming that we could buy and store goods today to be consumed over the next few decades, there is one large issue still outstanding: the money used to buy a can of beans in 2020 could instead have been invested in productive assets and would have likely waxed over time until it could buy several of the cans decades later. Because over history the beast of inflation has time and time again been slain by the power of productive capitalism. And this is what makes this strategy unappealing to implement to any great extent.
But there are a couple of scenarios where I think one can make a case for this sort of thinking:
- Jane has no idea what will happen to property prices over her retirement. She is currently a private renter, but has enough capital to become a cash buyer if it makes sense. She is ambivalent to the possible lifestyle advantages of being a homeowner, and the idea of house-as-investment does not seem fully convincing. But what Jane really values is peace of mind, and by purchasing a house now, she removes the future risk of price changes in the property/rental market. When she goes to sleep in her new home, she knows that every day she wakes, she will still own it, regardless of any economic turmoil. It’s hers.
- Joe is always replacing low-quality tools that wear out or break. Plastic casings and under-specified fastenings buckle under his expectations of how they should perform for him. This attrition is largely mitigated by fact that these tools are all great bargains when bought. But one day, Joe decides to stem this steady cashflow by splashing out on a set of very high-quality, durable tools that are built for a lifetime. He doesn’t know which route would have worked out better financially in the long-term. But now he owns a collection of physical tools instead of numbers in a bank account that promise a possible future conversion to real usable things.
What do you think? Have you tempered your asset allocation with an old-fashioned dose of physical stuff?