Rising Inflation: What Asset Owners Can Do About It

Montreal, October 13, 2021


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported[1] that the U.S. Consumer Price Index (“CPI”) had risen 5.3% in August from August of last year. The increase was smaller than the 5.4% increase reported year-on-year for July. Similarly, the Core CPI, which excludes more volatile energy and food items, had risen 4.0% in August from August 2020. The increase was also smaller than the 4.3% year-on-year increase reported last month.

In Canada, the CPI accelerated to 4.1% in August year-on-year relative to a 3.7% increase in July[2]. When excluding gasoline, prices increased 3.2% year-on-year, up from 2.8% in July, the highest level in 13 years.

Similar observations can be made for other parts of the world with Eurozone and Japan inflation hitting levels not seen in a decade.


When we examine the price increases at the component level, we note that the principal contribution to core inflation[3] increase comes from the used cars and trucks component, which is up over 30% from August 2020. Used cars and trucks are more expensive due to the reduction in new car inventory, which caused surging demand in the used passenger vehicle channels. The reduction in new car inventory was largely attributable to a shortage of key components, including computer chips. To meet the needs of an increased percentage of the global population that started to work from home at the onset of the pandemic, the semi-conductor manufacturers were forced to reroute their foundry capacity away from automotive chips to cloud, home computer and peripheral chips. Things were slowly returning to normal earlier this spring when a fire broke out at Renesas Electronics’ Naka factory in Japan, where chip production did not return to full capacity until three months later. Elsewhere, the worst drought experienced in Taiwan during the last 50 years forced producers on the island to make production adjustments at their processing facilities which require large amounts of water.

Interestingly, while the world has gotten used to the threat of inflation at the raw material level caused by the shutdown of an oil field in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the Middle East, by a strike at a copper mine in Chile or at a platinum mine in South Africa, it is the first time that shortage of a manufactured product has had such an impact. Given the fact that chips represent as much as 40% of the cost of an automobile[4], in a sense, computer chips are to 2021 what oil was a generation ago in terms of its strategic importance. Understandably, this risk is being addressed already. For instance, Intel announced that it would build two plants in Chandler, Arizona at the cost of 20 billion while Mudabala’s Global Foundries subsidiary announced that it would establish a plant in Singapore. We believe there will be other announcements as President Biden’s Infrastructure Plan has earmarked 500 billion for this sector. As such, we believe that the risk of lingering inflation rise from this component of the index will abate before the end of spring 2022.


Going back to the sources of contributions to core inflation increases, beyond used cars, trucks and parts, we note significant year-over-year increases in the price of household furnishings and supplies, which includes furniture, home appliances and apparel. As the vast majority of these goods are imported goods, their prices have been directly impacted by container shipping costs, which have been booming. To this point, the Drewry World Container Index, which tracks the cost of shipping a 40-foot container over various routes globally is up 600% from January 2020[5] through late August 2021. Similarly, the Baltic Dry Index, which tracks the cost of shipping bulk commodities (like coal, iron ore and grains) is up 1000% over the same period[6]. Shipping costs are extremely volatile and the sector is famous for its boom and bust episodes. In fact, despite the spectacular run-up in prices that we have witnessed in the past 18 months, container and dry bulk shipping costs have not even reached half of the levels reached in the months leading to China’s Beijing Olympics Games in 2008 when enormous volumes of raw materials needed to be imported for all the infrastructure projects that were being developed in parallel to the Olympics. While the shipping market imploded shortly after the Beijing Olympics with the rest of the economy, the current price surge could be more lasting than it was 13 years ago. While global trade volume is not as effervescent as it was back in 2008 relative to the number of vessels, port congestion is causing long delays and constraining supply. A COVID-19 outbreak at a Ningbo-Zhoushan Port terminal which forced a partial shutdown of the port earlier this summer did nothing to alleviate price inflation. That being said, given the history of this sector, we believe that price pressures will likely be resolved through a combination of increased port capacity and a larger fleet. That could, however, take a while as the current dry bulk orderbook, measured in terms of deadweight ton on order as a percentage of the current fleet was recently observed at the lowest levels since 2003[7]. The prospect of shipping crew shortage also risks complicating the situation. In fact, UN-Secretary General Antonio Guterres, during an address on World Maritime Day[8], recognized the humanitarian crisis that hundreds of thousands of seafarers face as many became effectively stranded at sea, unable to disembark due to voyage delays caused by the pandemic.


So far, we have looked at the two principal components of Core CPI increases from August 2020 to August 2021 and have concluded that those increases will probably subside. Given that certain Core CPI components have seen muted price increases, could we witness a material impact in inflation should they start moving up?

An obvious item to scrutinize, if only because it represents nearly one-third of the entire Core CPI measure, is shelter. Shelter, however, is misleading, to say the least. In effect, apart from minor items such as the cost of lodging away from home and household insurance, the Bureau of Labor Statistics considers houses as capital, not as consumption items. As such, instead of using actual home price variation as an indicator, the cost of shelter is the implicit rent that owner-occupants would have to pay if they were renting their own homes. It is referred to as owner equivalent rent or OER. To quantify it, the Consumer Expectations Survey simply asks consumers who own their primary residence the following question:

“If someone were to rent your home today, how much do you think it would rent for monthly, unfurnished and without utilities?”

Surveyors then compile responses collected from their sample which is designed to be representative of nationwide housing dynamics.

It is easy to see how this method for estimating variations in housing costs can be misleading. In fact, the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland itself, in a research conducted in 2014[10], suggested that OER did not appear to be influenced by vacancy rates, unemployment rates or the real interest rate. Furthermore, only lagged house price appreciation appears to have a statistically significant relationship with the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ OER.

Actually, historical data shows that from 2005 to 2007, OER increases were trailing substantially the increase in the house price index and OER puzzlingly continued to increase from 2007 to 2009 when house prices were comparatively falling at near double-digit rates nationwide. In other words, it appears that the Bureau of Labor Statistics measure of shelter cost appears quite disconnected from actual changes in homeownership costs.

From our perspective, this is rather important as OER represents more than two-thirds of the shelter CPI component, and one-third of the index. To the extent that it is implicitly a lagging indicator, as more surveyed homeowners realize what has been happening to home prices nationwide, they may adjust their response accordingly. And as such, even if the price of other items starts to decline, as lumber and iron ore have recently, it may take a while for the index to decline if the OER component starts to tick up.


At the moment, after having reconsidered the numbers, we continue to believe that the recent above-trend increases in inflation are transitory, rather than structural, and that by the second quarter of 2022, year-on-year inflation increases will have subsided to levels that are within the Federal Reserve’s comfort band. Our view is aligned with the current consensus. In fact, the U.S. 5-year expected inflation derived from the difference in yields between 5-Year Treasury Constant Maturity Securities and 5-Year Treasury Inflation-Indexed Constant Maturity Securities has stabilized around 2,5%.

Leaving aside questions about Central Banks‘ willingness and ability to raise the discount rate and end their bond purchase programs, we asked ourselves if assets owners’ portfolios are constructed to withstand unexpected increases in inflation and if not, what should be added or removed to improve resiliency?


In the following section, we will discuss the performance of broader asset classes during rising inflation periods historically and whether such performance is likely to be repeated. We will then summarize which asset classes an investor should consider to reposition his portfolio in order to make it more resilient should inflation unexpectedly increased further.


The current narrative is that equities would do well if inflation was a little higher. The rationale is that corporations would be able to pass on higher costs to end consumers while a portion of their costs, such as labor-related costs, would not increase immediately. Additionally, higher inflation would tend to increase the replacement cost of existing assets and make those relatively more valuable.

While these are reasonable assumptions, we believe that the ability to pass on higher costs to end consumers will vary greatly from one company to another. Our view is that companies with a relatively high proportion of their cost structure consisting of fixed costs will tend to do better. All else equals, value stocks should be favored relative to growth stocks. That being said, it is important to consider what is happening to growth and productivity at the same time.

Unfortunately, inflation has been in a downward trend in the past 40 years. In fact, before 2021, there have been only three instances where the Core CPI increased by more than 1% relative to the prior year in the U.S., 1987, 2000 and 2008. We would highlight that these were not good years for this asset class even though there were clearly other factors at work.

With that in mind, we accept that equities would probably do well with minor increases in inflation but that beyond a certain level, market participants will assume that inflation could persist and reflect those views by adjusting the equity risk premium higher and lowering price targets.


The relationship between nominal bond yields and the rate of change in the CPI has been quite strong going as far back as the end of World War II.  They have tended to increase in tandem from the early 1960s to the late 1970s before declining together since 1980. Given the inverse relationship between nominal bond yields and bond prices, the empirical evidence is quite strong: rising inflation is detrimental to fixed income.

That being said, not all fixed income instruments have similar characteristics. To this point, instruments with more distant maturities exhibit more sensitivity to changes in inflation expectations. Conversely, instruments like Canadian preferred shares and bank loans, whose distributions increase when short or intermediate government bond yields increase, may benefit in a rising inflation scenario. The condition for that to happen, however, is that higher inflation needs to trigger a monetary policy response, as distribution rates are linked to short or intermediate-term government bond rates, not to inflation specifically. In fact, these instruments have been negatively impacted by the various rounds of quantitative easing that have suppressed interest rates. As such, while these instruments would likely do better than government bonds and investment-grade corporate bonds in an inflationary scenario, we believe these instruments remain more responsive to changes in monetary policy than to changes in inflation. Furthermore, it is important to note that while these instruments might be effective for small increases in inflation that would drive small increases in rates, beyond a certain level, the relationship could break because default risk jumps .

More direct exposure to inflation increases is possible via Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (“TIPS”) in the U.S. which have been auctioned since 1997. In Canada, Real Return Bonds play an equivalent role. With TIPS, for instance, the principal value is adjusted for inflation. As such, if held to maturity, TIPS will have provided full indemnification for inflation increases. Before maturity, though, TIPS are impacted by future inflation expectations, which may cause them to appreciate or depreciate and potentially negate, at least temporarily, their inflation hedging properties.

Another fixed income market segment to consider is emerging market bonds, and in particular, those denominated in local currencies. The logic is that the value of coupons and principal payments could be worth more in U.S. terms should the United States experience an extended period of elevated inflation relative to other countries, which could depreciate the U.S. dollar. The inflation hedging properties of emerging markets local currency bonds could become particularly interesting if inflation increases are driven by a surge in commodity prices, from which numerous emerging-market countries still derive a significant portion of their international trade revenues. Lastly, income generated from emerging markets fixed income tends to exceed the income generated from their counterpart in developed markets over time. However, the segment is not without risk. To this point, default risks and political risks tend to be elevated as compared to developed markets and we are doubtful that on aggregate, emerging markets fixed income would perform well in a stagflation scenario, characterized by higher inflation but comparatively low economic and productivity growth.


Commodities are generally thought to be decent inflation hedges. The principal reason is that demand for commodities tends to be relatively price inelastic. This is true for agricultural, energy and industrial metals. Commodities could be really effective hedges if supply and demand dynamics for a particular commodity are the cause of a broader increase in inflation, as was the case in 1973 when the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries declared an oil embargo against nations that were perceived to support Israel during the Yom Kippur War. This embargo impacted the global economy for many years.

However, one of the challenges with commodities is that the asset class is quite volatile and that, unfortunately, changes in inflation expectations explain only fractions of that volatility. In fact, one could argue that while the introduction of commodities in a portfolio might contribute to hedge against unexpected inflation increases, it could introduce a number of undesirable risks or compound existing risks.

Some argue that gold and other precious metals are better inflation hedges than other commodities. Unfortunately, data going back to the days when Richard Nixon rendered the Bretton Woods regime inoperative in 1971, suggest only a weak relationship between quarterly spot gold prices and U.S. Core CPI[11]. While the relationship appears stronger for increases in inflation that exceed 5% per annum, this would indicate that like other commodities, the price of gold is largely driven by factors other than inflation, at least over the short term. In fact, a good portion of those arguing that gold can serve as a great inflation hedge also thinks that gold is a good deflation hedge. We believe that perhaps it is more a hedge against heightened uncertainty in general, not necessarily specific to inflation considerations.

Another theory[12] suggests that gold prices are inversely related to the real expected return on other financial assets. In other words, the best environment to hold gold is one where negative real rates of return (that is nominal rates of return after inflation) are expected to be low. We think this theory makes intuitive sense as gold, an asset that produces no income, becomes an attractive alternative to assets whose income is not expected to cover the cost of inflation. This theory, however, has not proven very effective. Actually, in spite of the deeply negative real expected rates of return prevailing for most of the fixed income universe, gold has not meaningfully appreciated and has in fact lagged most other commodities. To be clear, gold’s behavior puzzles us. Admittedly, there seem to be more unknown than known factors at work. We even wonder if large-cap technology stocks have taken over gold’s role as a hedge against declining real rates of returns.


Real assets are often presented as natural hedges against rising inflation since the income generated from the underlying assets through rents, tolls and other sources tend to increase over time.

As most investors approach the real asset sector principally through private markets funds that report net asset values infrequently, it is difficult to empirically validate this claim. Some researchers use publicly-traded market proxies, such as Real Estate Investment Trusts (“REITS”) or Infrastructure Equities[13] to estimate real assets sensitivities to various risk factors and then generalize finding to private markets. For us, this is a delicate exercise as the nature of publicly listed companies can be quite different from that of private companies or assets in the space. For instance, the public REITS side is largely comprised of core, stabilized properties while there is typically a larger content of development projects on the private side. In fact, public REITS are often buyers of assets developed in the private space. With regards to listed infrastructure, publicly listed indices include companies involved in engineering and construction, which may be quite a bit more cyclical than the infrastructure assets themselves.

Ultimately, there are indeed assets that present superior ability to pass through cost inflation, like regulated power utilities, but it is not true for all assets. Real asset values change in response to several factors and we suspect that inflation is responsible for only a modest proportion of real assets price variations, not unlike the situation that we described for commodities. Moreover, changes in value related to local markets, supply/demand dynamics and the debt structure underlying real assets seem of capital significance. For instance, in a rising inflation scenario, real assets financed with fixed-rate long-term debt should appreciate more than comparable assets financed with floating rate short-term debt. The reason is that income matters more than revenues and having a fixed debt charge will be more beneficial than a floating debt charge as the latter will increase with inflation. With that in mind, we think that interest rates, specifically long-term interest rates, have a greater influence on real assets values than inflation itself. After all, real assets have been amongst the best-performing assets in the last decade, a relatively benign period from an inflation standpoint but one that saw long-term interest rates decline consistently.


As we have seen so far, the vast majority of assets which potentially have interesting inflation hedging characteristics are also sensitive to many other factors. As such, when introducing those assets in a portfolio, investors must weigh the other risks that are being introduced and in what proportion relative to the assets already held. Alternatively, investors could consider the introduction of long/short or relative value strategies in which the instrument that is sold short is designed to offset one or more of the undesirable characteristics of the instrument that is being held long.

An example would be the introduction of inflation break-even strategies, which consist of a long position in an inflation-linked bond, usually a TIPS, and a short position in a duration equivalent nominal government bond. The intent of such strategies is to remove the impact of changes in inflation expectations during the holding period. This is important because, as we have discussed before, changes in future inflation expectations will cause fluctuations in the value of TIPS that are unrelated to the current level of inflation. In contrast, a long TIPS position hedged with a duration equivalent government bond will eliminate this risk and result in a purer, inflation hedging strategy.

Another strategy could consist in establishing long positions in a basket of stocks with desirable inflation hedging characteristics like infrastructure or commodity-related equities, with a beta matched short position in the broader market of sector indices, thereby emphasizing the inflation hedging characteristics and removing the broader equity market risk.

These are the type of strategies that are tactically implemented by global macro managers, often with significant leverage in order to compound potential benefits. The main challenge is to identify managers whose fund’s exposure to a rising inflation thematic would be large enough relative to other exposures to warrant an allocation on that basis. Unfortunately, such managers are scarce as the business of selling inflation protection has not been very lucrative in the past twenty years. Most of them turned to something else or diversified their portfolio to the point where the inflation hedging properties had been severely diluted.


We have discussed in detail the causes underpinning the increase in inflation and have concluded that the phenomenon is temporary. We also debated the idea that the shelter component of the Core CPI calculation may in itself be a lagged indicator of future inflation and that this component could cause inflation to persist. We then examined each asset class from the point of view of their respective inflation hedging characteristics and conclude that making an investment portfolio more resilient in the face of unexpected increases in inflation is challenging. For one, the reality is that the traditional fixed income and equity allocation do not tend to do well when inflation expectations accelerate too quickly. Secondly, the vast majority of assets or strategies that exhibit inflation hedging features also happen to bear other risks which are sometimes greater than the risks they are designed to reduce. The key is to find the appropriate balance in the choice of assets and their corresponding allocation, such that a portfolio does relatively well should inflation expectations increase while not doing too badly should inflation expectations remain stable.

We believe that the solutions that we have deployed and the robust portfolio construction framework that accompanies it does improve expected outcomes in a rising inflationary scenario without compromising expected outcomes in other scenarios.

Dimitri Douaire, M. Sc., CFA
Chief Investment Officer


[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics

[2] Statistics Canada

[3] We focus on Core Inflation rather than broad inflation measures as the latter do not influence monetary policy.

[4] Source : Alix Partners

[5] Source : Drewry

[6] Source : Bloomberg

[7] Source: BIMCO

[8] September 30

[9] U.S. Census estimate of the number of houses in the U.S.

[10] Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Recent Owners’ Equivalent Rent Inflation Is Probably Not a Blip, August 11, 2014

[11] Source : World Gold Council

[12] Robert Barsky & Lawrence Summers, Gibson’s Paradox and the Gold standard, 1985

[13] Companies that own or that operate infrastructure assets.


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