Investing and Inflation Protection

Investing and Inflation Protection

Are you taking steps to protect your portfolio against inflation? Though we really haven’t seen it yet, many are afraid that the steps that have been taken over the past few years to stimulate the economy will inevitably result in elevated inflation.

Well, Vanguard just published an interesting article about the risks associated with Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS). In it, they argued that investors that are looking to add TIPS to their portfolio in hopes of protecting themselves against inflation are taking on relatively high levels of interest rate risk.

Said another way, bonds rates are at all-time lows. If (when) rates eventually move up, existing bonds will be less attractive to investors and thus their values will fall. If you’re holding actual bonds (as opposed to TIPS mutual fund) then this is just a paper loss — unless you sell before maturity. But it’s a real risk, particularly if there’s a chance that you’ll need the money prior to maturity.

In truth, interest rate risk isn’t unique to TIPS. All marketable bonds are exposed to this sort of risk. But bonds that aren’t indexed to inflation are expected to pay what’s referred to as an “inflation premium” — i.e., their rate will be higher to compensate for the risks associated with owning a non-inflation-indexed bond in a potentially inflationary world.

As of now, TIPS have real (inflation adjusted) yields near 0%. Thus, while they’ll help you protect the value of your current dollars, you shouldn’t be looking for much in the way of real returns over the long run. If we hit a period of high inflation, you’ll do okay. But if we don’t, you may not achieve desired returns.

Of course, TIPS aren’t the only way to hedge against inflation. You could, for example, buy Series I Savings Bonds or even resist the temptation to pay off your mortgage early (or even take out a bigger one).

As for us, though we’ve long since paid off our mortgage, we do have a healthy dose of TIPS and we also pick up our annual allotment of I bonds each year.

Ultimately, I have no idea what tomorrow holds — and neither do you — so I figure it’s better to diversify and ensure that, while our approach is unlikely to be 100% right, it’s unlikely to be 100% wrong.

3 Responses to “Investing and Inflation Protection”

  1. Petunia: Yes, but with a difference… Bond funds never mature. But it’s true that any loss is a paper loss until you lock it in by selling. It’s just that there’s no guarantee that the price will go back up with a fund, whereas with an actual bond you’re guaranteed to get your money back at maturity.

  2. Anonymous

    “If you’re holding actual bonds (as opposed to TIPS mutual fund) then this is just a paper loss — unless you sell before maturity.”

    Can’t we say the same about bond funds? It’s just a paper loss unless you need to sell before the next time interest rates fall?

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