We can largely control the first two by maximizing the use of tax-effective vehicles like TFSAs, RRSPs and RRIFs, and avoiding high-fee investment solutions. Stock market returns and interest rates are trickier, typically addressed by ensuring that the traditional free lunch of diversification and asset allocation are commensurate with your financial resources and lifestyle objectives.
But what about inflation? Throughout 2022, inflation has remained elevated, triggered by the COVID recovery and stimulative monetary policy by way of ultra-low interest rates. Central banks in Canada and abroad have done an about-face, raising rates to try to slow down spending and cool inflation.
If you’re contemplating retirement or semi-retirement, is inflation a sufficient threat to consider postponing it? We tackled similar ground in this space a year ago, shortly after the COVID bear market hit. Then, as now, the long-term future is essentially unknowable. As Vancouver-based portfolio manager Adrian Mastracci of Lycos Asset Management Inc. sees it, “Various pundits are making the case for both a robust economy and one not quite so. Investors should remember that they cannot control either flavour. They may get both, one followed by the other.”
Some fear inflation is a threat to stocks. However, a stock portfolio in itself can be a good inflation hedge as long as the right stocks are chosen, says Matthew Ardrey, wealth advisor and portfolio manager with Toronto-based TriDelta Financial. “You want to invest in companies with relatively inelastic demand for their products,” says Ardrey. “A company that can push on costs to consumers instead of absorbing them will be able to be more profitable.” Some stocks are more vulnerable to inflation than others. Mad Money’s Jim Cramer has said high-tech digital commerce stocks, like Google, may be inflation havens. Those that can boost prices, like Netflix, may also be similarly insulated. Historically, technology stocks have not done well in a high-inflation environment, and 2022 has been no different.
Watch: When can I retire?
Aside from stocks, Ardrey recommends adding a trio of other asset classes: commodities, real estate and gold. Commodities are relatively inelastic in their demand, so price increases do little to affect the amount of consumption: more on which below. REITs (or REIT ETFs) are an easy, liquid way to add real estate to an inflation-resistant investment portfolio. “Physical assets like real property often continue to grow above the rate of inflation. Additionally, if the loans borrowed to purchase the property are fixed-rate, then inflation erodes the cost of repayment over time.” That said, “In a post-COVID environment, you need to be selective in where you invest in this asset class,” Ardrey cautions. Focus on inelastic areas like residential real estate. People will always need a place to live.”
The case for gold stems over concern that governments increase their money supply by “printing money,” raising worries about creditworthiness and the value of money. “Investors often move to gold during more unstable times in the markets,” Ardrey says. “Precious metals can provide inflation protection. They are a primary input in many manufacturing cycles and often have no real replacement, making them inelastic.” (Read more about buying gold.)
Personally, I rely on traditional asset allocation to cover the various possibilities of inflation, deflation, prosperity and depression. I’ve always found Harry Browne’s Permanent Portfolio to be a good initial mix of assets to prepare for all possibilities: stocks for prosperity, bonds for deflation, cash for depression/recession and gold for inflation. Browne, who died in 2006, famously allocated 25% to each.
That’s a good place to start, although some might add real estate/REITs and make it a five-way split each of 20%. Some suggest 10% in gold (both gold bullion ETFs and gold mining stock ETFs), with the other 10% in other precious metals like silver, platinum and palladium. Some might prefer to put some of the precious metal allocations into a 5% position in cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and ethereum, or “digital gold” (which we investigated earlier in this column). Unlike dollars, which governments can print in unlimited quantities, bitcoin is a bit like land: no more will be issued when they reach the 21-million bitcoin limit built into the cryptocurrency’s original design.
Dale Roberts likes the inflation-fighting diversification of the Purpose Diversified Real Asset Fund (PRA/TSX), of which I now own a modest position. Its goal is to “protect purchasing power with real assets,” and diversify a core bond and equity portfolio to “protect against inflation with a broad basket of real assets and related equities.” It splits its real assets into five major varieties: energy, precious metals, base metals, agriculture and real estate. Within each of those five categories, it invests two-thirds in related equities and one-third in direct commodity exposure. So for example, the energy segment invests in cotton futures, soybean and corn futures, but also stocks like Archer-Daniels-Midland Co. It invests in crude and gasoline futures as well as stocks like Chevron Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp. Geographically, almost 60% is in the U.S. and 15% in Canada, with the rest in cash. The base metals segment invests in copper futures and stocks like Nucor Corp. and Freeport-McMorRan Inc.