The Impact of Inflation on Investments and Savings

October 3, 2023
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Inflation is the rise in the price of goods over time, to make a long story short. In practical terms, inflation means that the money you have today will buy less when you decide to spend it in the future. It is indeed concerning because rapidly rising inflation damages the national economy and individual purses.

Nonetheless, inflation is also the force behind rising wages and the appreciation of your assets. Eventually, inflation is neither good nor bad.

Exploring inflation

Inflation is the sustained increase in the general price level of goods and services in an economy over time, typically measured annually. It means that, on average, the prices of most items that people buy are rising, resulting in a decrease in the buying power of a unit of currency. 

There are two main ways to measure inflation:

  1. Consumer Price Index (CPI): The CPI is the most widely used measure of inflation. It is calculated by tracking the prices of a basket of goods that are commonly purchased by consumers. The CPI is published monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  2. Producer Price Index (PPI): The PPI measures the prices that businesses pay for services. It is also published monthly by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Both the CPI and PPI are expressed as percentages. A 0% reading signifies price stability, indicating that prices are neither rising nor falling. A 1% reading suggests an annual price increase of 1%, while a -1% reading signifies an annual price decrease of 1%.

The Erosion of Purchasing Power

High inflation may reduce the real value of money over time by eroding its buying power. It occurs because the prices of goods and services generally rise over time, while the nominal value of money remains constant. Here's how inflation affects the real value of money:

  1. Initial Purchase Power. Imagine that you have $100 today, and with that money, you can purchase a specific basket of goods that provide a certain level of utility or satisfaction. At this point, your buying power is determined by the nominal value of your money, which is $100.
  2. The Effect of Inflation. Over time, as inflation occurs, the prices begin to increase. It means that the same basket of goods and services that you could purchase for $100 today may cost more in the future due to inflation.
  3. Decreased Purchasing Power. As prices rise, the real value of your money diminishes because it can buy fewer goods than it could in the past. This reduction means that your $100 is no longer as valuable as it used to be.
  4. Impact on Savings. If you have money saved in a bank account, the nominal balance may remain the same, but its real value is decreasing in an inflationary environment. For example, if your savings account earns 1% interest annually but inflation rises to 2%, your real savings are effectively losing value by 1% per year.
  5. Impact on Investments. Inflation also affects investment returns. If the return on your investments (e.g., stocks, bonds) does not exceed the inflation rate, your real returns are negative. That is, your investments are not preserving your buying power, and you may be losing money in real terms.
  6. Cost of Living. Inflation impacts the cost of living, making everyday expenses such as housing, groceries, and healthcare more expensive. This can strain household budgets and reduce the quality of life if income does not keep pace with rising costs.
  7. Retirement Planning. Inflation poses a significant challenge for retirement planning. People often underestimate the impact of inflation on their retirement savings, potentially leading to a shortfall in funds during retirement.
  8. Necessity of Investment. To combat the erosion of the real value of money, individuals often turn to investments like stocks, real estate, or inflation-protected securities. These investments have the potential to provide returns that outpace inflation, helping to preserve and grow wealth in real terms.
  9. Economic Implications. On a broader scale, inflation affects the entire economy. When inflation is moderate and predictable, it can incentivize spending and investment. However, high or unpredictable inflation can harm economic stability and disrupt financial planning and decision-making.

Inflation's Impact on Savings

Inflation poses significant challenges for savers and individuals with fixed income, as it erodes the real value and buying power of their savings and fixed-income assets. Among the key challenges:

  • Reduced Real Returns. Fixed-income investments, such as bonds, certificates of deposit (CDs), and savings accounts, typically offer fixed interest rates or yields. As inflation erodes the real value of money, the fixed interest payments from these investments become less valuable.
  • Diminished Purchasing Power. Savers and investors with fixed-income assets experience a decline in their ability to purchase goods and services over time. The interest earned may not keep pace with the rising cost of living.
  • Risk of Negative Real Returns. If the rate of inflation exceeds the yield or interest rate earned on fixed-income investments, investors will face negative returns. In this scenario, they are effectively losing money in real terms.
  • Reinvestment Risk. Savers and investors with fixed-income assets face reinvestment risk when their fixed-income investments mature or when they receive periodic interest payments.

To address these challenges, savers and investors often adopt such strategies as:

  • Investing in asset classes that tend to appreciate in value over time. Assets such as stocks and real estate tend to appreciate in value over time, which means that they can help keep up with inflation and even beat it.
  • Increasing income. Increasing your income can help you offset the negative effects of inflation. You can get a raise at work, start a side hustle, or invest in yourself to increase your earning potential.
  • Using debt wisely. Debt can be a burden, but it can also be used to your advantage. If you can borrow money at a lower interest rate than the rate of inflation, you can effectively profit from inflation.

How Inflation Affect Investment Returns

Inflation has a significant impact on investment portfolio, particularly for fixed-income investments. Fixed-income investments are investments that pay a fixed rate of return, such as bonds. The interest rate on a bond is typically set at the time of issuance and remains the same until the bond matures. If inflation is higher than the interest rate on a bond, the investor will lose buying power over time.

For example, if you buy a bond with a 5% interest rate and inflation is 6%, you will actually earn a negative return on your investment because the value of your investment will decrease at a faster rate than it is growing.

Inflation also makes it difficult for fixed-income investors to generate income as the fixed interest rate on a bond will not keep up with the rising cost of living. For instance, if you are retired and rely on the income from your bond portfolio to live on, inflation will make it difficult to make ends meet.

Strategies for Inflation-Resistant Investments

Investors have several investment options and strategies at their disposal to hedge against the erosive effects of inflation. These strategies aim to preserve and potentially grow wealth in real terms by generating returns that outpace the rate of inflation. Here are some of them to consider:

Stocks

Stocks, or equities, have historically been one of the most effective hedges against inflation. They represent ownership in companies, and the value of stocks tends to rise over time, keeping pace with or outperforming inflation. Additionally, companies adjust their prices and earnings to account for inflation, making stocks a natural inflation hedge.

Real Estate

Real estate investments, such as owning rental properties or real estate investment trusts (REITs) appreciate in value over time, and landlords can adjust rental income to keep pace with inflation. Moreover, REITs offer exposure to real estate without the need for direct property ownership and provide dividend income that may increase over time.

Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS)

TIPS are U.S. government bonds designed to protect against inflation. They provide a fixed interest rate that adjusts with changes in the Consumer Price Index (CPI). TIPS pays both principal and interest that increase with inflation, ensuring that the purchasing power of the investment is preserved.

Bond Laddering

Bond laddering involves owning a portfolio of bonds with staggered maturities. As bonds mature, the proceeds can be reinvested at current market rates, potentially capturing higher yields if interest rates rise due to inflation.

Commodities

Commodities represent raw materials essential for the production of goods and services. Investing in commodities is an effective method of reducing inflation risk since their values typically ascend with inflationary pressures. Among the well-known commodities are oil, gold, and silver.

In conclusion, you should remember that understanding inflation is crucial because it impacts various financial decisions, including spending and saving money.