April Idea of the Month: Not positive we’ll see inflation? Think bonds

By Travis Johnson, Stock Gumshoe, April 19, 2009


It is fashionable across all of the investing punditry universe to be terrified of inflation — and for good reason, inflation is the thief that steals a dollar a day from your wallet without your notice, until you go to pay for your $58 coffee one day and come out with an empty hand.

So inflation-related investment ideas are legion — materials stocks should help fight inflation because the value of their commodities goes up as the value of each dollar lessens; going further, the gold bugs will tell you that hyperinflation will bring a return to using gold and silver as “real money”, so you should hold physical gold; inflation protected bonds are often cited as cheap protection against inflation (if you believe the government’s CPI numbers will offer protection enough); and indeed, many successful operating companies can do OK during inflationary times because they can raise prices (though there are negatives for many of them, too — and multiples usually shrink for the stock market when interest rates rise). Even borrowing money to buy assets is good during inflationary times, since the money you pay back is worth less than the money you borrowed.

But what about deflation — which, in case you haven’t checked, is what we’re facing (or on the cusp of, at least), right now? In deflation, you want to hold cash, and get steady inflows of cash that you buy with less valuable dollars and have repaid in more valuable, deflationary dollars. If interest rates are also falling or staying very low (or at least, not rising), then one logical investment to look at is bonds.

Of course, it would have been better to be in Treasury bonds a year or two ago, before this bubble in government debt began to form and before the stock market really crashed — but I’m not talking about Treasuries. The bonds I want to look at today are a little bit obscure — they trade on the stock exchange, they represent corporate borrowing, and they have very high yields.

If inflation does take off dramatically in the next a year or two they will become terrible investments (though not as terrible as some others) … but if, alternatively, you want to prepare for the possibility that the huge stimulus programs will not work and get the economy growing very strongly, or that the United ...

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