By Edoardo Cilla, investment strategist, Investment Strategy Group, Vanguard Europe, and Lukas Brandl-Cheng, investment strategy analyst, Investment Strategy Group, Vanguard Europe

With headline inflation climbing to its highest levels in decades across many developed economies, lots of investors are worried about the ability of their investment portfolios to keep pace. The latest estimate by the U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics puts US inflation at 7% in December 2021 – the highest in nearly 40 years.

As per our 2022 economic and market outlook, Vanguard thinks inflation will continue to climb across most economies in the first half of 2022 before cooling towards targeted levels by the end of the year.

Even with the expected cool-down, we still think euro area inflation will remain elevated compared to pre-pandemic levels at around 3% by the end of 2022. Of course, our expectations are just that – expectations – and inflation could conceivably persist around current levels.

Whether inflation levels persist or cool, the concern among investors is very real. Indeed, when asked about the biggest risks to the economy and markets in 2022, the most common option identified by the investors we polled last month was ‘higher inflation’ (36%)1. With this in mind, our analysis of the performance of different asset classes under inflationary environments may help investors better understand how they can protect their portfolios from the corrosive effect of inflation on portfolio returns.

Inflation beta and volatility

For investors looking to hedge inflation risk over the short term, an asset class’ sensitivity to inflation (beta) is the best way of measuring its ability to keep pace with inflation. Unlike correlation, which only captures the direction of co-movement between the asset's returns and inflation, inflation beta captures both the direction and the magnitude of the co-movement.

Inflation beta is defined as how much an asset’s return increases when inflation goes up by one percentage point, and it represents the true inflation-hedging property of the asset. A beta score of one means the asset moves, on average, in lockstep with inflation.

We compared one-year returns with the one-year change in the US consumer price index (CPI) to analyse the inflation beta of various asset classes and ultimately understand their inflation-hedging qualities over a short-term investment horizon. As the chart below illustrates, commodities and gold have historically offered USD investors the greatest inflation hedge over the short term. Global and local equities on the other hand registered negative inflation betas.

Short-term inflation-hedging qualities of different asset classes

Source: Vanguard calculations.

Notes: Volatility is calculated as standard deviation of rolling one-year annaulised returns, at monthly frequency. Inflation beta is defined as how much an asset's return increases when inflation goes up by 1 percentage point. The sample period for equities and treasury inflation-protected securities is 31 December 1970 to 30 October 2021. Due to data availability, the sample for global bonds (hedged) starts on 31 January 1991, for US bonds on 31 January 1977, for US government bonds on 31 January 1974, and for Commodities and Gold on 29 January 1971. Indices used: global equity = MSCI World Net Total Return Index; US equity = MSCI US Net Total Return Index; global bonds (hedged) = Bloomberg Global Aggregate Total Return Index (Hedged USD); US bonds = Bloomberg US Agg Total Return Index; treasury inflation-protected securities = Bloomberg US Govt Inflation-Linked All Maturities Total Return Index; US government bonds = Bloomberg US Treasury Total Return Index; commodities = S&P GSCI Index Spot; gold = Gold Spot.

However, high-inflation-beta assets don’t come risk-free. Higher return volatility associated with commodities and gold means an allocation to these asset classes could significantly alter the risk profile of an investor’s portfolio.

It’s also important to remember that, from a USD investor’s perspective, commodities are exposed to foreign exchange risk (unless properly hedged). Further, inflation is not the only variable that can impact the performance of commodities.

Equities offer long-term protection

Over longer-term horizons, equities have typically offered positive returns in excess of the rate of inflation. The next chart shows the proportion of real returns higher than 0% (that is, a positive return after inflation) for five-, 10- and 20-year horizons.

Historically, as the results show, investing in global equities has offered the greatest chance of achieving a positive real return with a lower level of risk relative to gold and aggregate commodities.

Proportion of long-term positive real returns for gold, commodities and equities

Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results.

Sources: Vanguard calculations, based on data from Bloomberg.

Notes: The chart shows the proportion of real 5-year, 10-year, and 20-year returns that have been above 0%. The sample period for the monthly data is December 1974 to October 2021. Volatility is calculated over monthly returns of the entire sample period.

Ultimately, global equity markets offer an effective long-term hedge against the risks of inflation. Over shorter time frames, commodities and gold are more likely to outpace the rate of inflation but come at the expense of higher return volatility (relative to equities), leaving investment portfolios more vulnerable to swings in value.

Further to that, the performance of high-inflation-beta assets is predicably strong in high inflationary environments, but should a high-inflation scenario not play out, the performance of these assets may drag on returns relative to a traditional multi-asset portfolio of equities and bonds. Titling portfolios towards gold and commodities to hedge inflation incurs a level of forecast risk, and if maintained for too long investors could miss out on long-term equity risk premium.

Sticking with a long-term strategy

Clients concerned about the impact of inflation on their investment returns ought to consider their investment horizon and tolerance for risk before making any changes to asset allocation. For many investors, the best course of action will be to maintain a globally diversified portfolio of equities and bonds, perhaps tweaking the mix of equities and bonds should individual circumstances or objectives change.

Using the Vanguard Capital Markets Model (VCMM), our proprietary forecasting framework, we looked at what USD investors might reasonably expect from a globally diversified portfolio of 60% equities and 40% bonds (with a home bias) in real terms (accounting for inflation) over 10- and 30-year investment horizons. Our analysis suggests a 60/40 portfolio is likely to return about 1.92% annually, on average, over the next 10 years, and about 3.63% over 30 years2.

With real returns likely to be low over the next decade, keeping costs low will be crucial for investors to get the most from their investments.

 

1 Source: Vanguard, as at 6 December 2021. Number of respondents = 126.

Source: Vanguard, as at 30 September 2021. Notes: forecast corresponds to distribution of 10,000 VCMM simulations for 10-year and 30-year annualised real returns in USD for a portfolio of 36% US equities, 24% global ex-US equities, 28% US bonds and 12% global ex-US bonds. US equities = MSCI USA Index, global ex-US equities = MSCI AC World ex-USA Index, US bonds = Bloomberg US Bond Index, global ex-US bonds = Bloomberg Global Agg ex-USD Index. All indices in USD.

IMPORTANT: The projections or other information generated by the Vanguard Capital Markets Model® (VCMM) regarding the likelihood of various investment outcomes are hypothetical in nature, do not reflect actual investment results, and are not guarantees of future results. VCMM results will vary with each use and over time.

The VCMM projections are based on a statistical analysis of historical data. Future returns may behave differently from the historical patterns captured in the VCMM. More important, the VCMM may be underestimating extreme negative scenarios unobserved in the historical period on which the model estimation is based.

The Vanguard Capital Markets Model® is a proprietary financial simulation tool developed and maintained by Vanguard’s primary investment research and advice teams. The model forecasts distributions of future returns for a wide array of broad asset classes. Those asset classes include US and international equity markets, several maturities of the US Treasury and corporate fixed income markets, international fixed income markets, US money markets, commodities, and certain alternative investment strategies. The theoretical and empirical foundation for the Vanguard Capital Markets Model is that the returns of various asset classes reflect the compensation investors require for bearing different types of systematic risk (beta). At the core of the model are estimates of the dynamic statistical relationship between risk factors and asset returns, obtained from statistical analysis based on available monthly financial and economic data from as early as 1960. Using a system of estimated equations, the model then applies a Monte Carlo simulation method to project the estimated interrelationships among risk factors and asset classes as well as uncertainty and randomness over time. The model generates a large set of simulated outcomes for each asset class over several time horizons. Forecasts are obtained by computing measures of central tendency in these simulations. Results produced by the tool will vary with each use and over time.

Investment risk information

The value of investments, and the income from them, may fall or rise and investors may get back less than they invested.

Past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results.

Simulated past performance is not a reliable indicator of future results.

Any projections should be regarded as hypothetical in nature and do not reflect or guarantee future results.

Important information

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