Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Return of Stagflation

In my Money Week column this week, I've been looking at the return of 1970s-style staglation. Here's a taster....

Historical comparisons are vital for any serious investor, not because the past always repeats itself, but because it gives you a sense of what forces are at work, and how they are likely to shape events. The tricky bit, however, is deciding which historical parallel is the right one.
So where are we right now? Back in the 1930s, recovering fitfully after an almighty global crash? Standing on the brink of a long bull market such as the early 1980s?
In fact, we are probably somewhere around 1969 – coming out of a decade of relatively strong growth and prosperity, but heading into one that will prove a much harder slog. The ‘stagflation’ of the 1970s – a malignant combination of rapid and rising inflation, zero growth, and rising unemployment which wiped out the wealth of the middle classes – could well be what lies in store.
In the debate between whether we are looking at a decade of deflation or inflation, too much attention is paid to where we are right now. At the start of the 1970s, there wasn’t much sign that rising prices were going to be a problem any time soon. Nor was there much sign that mass unemployment lay ahead.
But, as a fascinating recent analysis by Morgan Stanley made clear, there were forces at work in the early late 196s and 1970s that were to pave the way for stagflation -- and which all have very clear parallels today.
There was an international monetary system, which meant that the expansionary policies of the Federal Reserve were exported around the world. In 1970, it was the Bretton Woods system that had been set up after World War Two. Today, it is quantitative easing. But the net result is much the same. The Fed is trying to inflate its own economy, for its own reasons, but much of the expansion of the monetary system ends up elsewhere.
There was a glut of dollars flooding onto the global economy. In the early 1970s, the US was printing money to finance the Vietnam War. Now it is to keep its banking system afloat, but again the net impact is very similar.
There is a twin-track global economy. In the early 1970s, the peripheral economies – in those days mainly Japan, and the emerging Asian economies such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea – were growing very fast, while the main traditional economies were starting to stagnate. The same is true today, with the emerging markets racing ahead, whilst the established giants of the global economy have all slowed down sharply.
Finally, there were structural challenges to the old heavy-weight economies that meant they found it very hard to grow. In the early 1970s, they were faced with the loss of old basic manufacturing industries, and the creation of new service-based economies. In 1970, for example, 35% of British jobs were still in manufacturing, compared with only 13% now. It was impossible to grow very fast until that process was completed. Now, of course, it is debt de-leveraging: gradually restoring both personal and government balance sheets after the crazy borrowing spree of the last decade, which means that growth is likely to be very subdued for a long time to come.
The net result was rapid inflation and zero or minimal growth – the worst of all possible worlds.
Of course, there are differences as well. No historical comparison is ever perfect. There is none of the wage indexing that was common in the 1970s. When wages went up with inflation automatically, that ratcheted prices endlessly upwards. Today, wages are falling in the UK in real terms – they are rising at about 1% less than inflation – and in most of the developed world as well. The OPEC oil cartel is nothing like the force it was forty years ago – it isn’t going to be able to force up the oil price in the way it did in the 1970s.
Still, the parallels are clear enough. On balance, several years of stagflation looks the most likely outcome.
How should investors respond to that?
First, don’t worry about inflation just yet.
Although the main ingredients of stagflation were all in place by the beginning of 1970, inflation didn’t take off right away. It wasn’t until the oil crisis of 1973 that prices really started to run riot, and it was the second half of the decade that saw rampant inflation across much of the developed world. You need to reckon on the big upturn in prices around 2013 or 2014 – not this year or next. So for the time being you are fine remaining invested in assets such as bonds that don’t protect you from rising prices. They will carry on doing well for at least another two years.
Next, switch into real assets.
With zero growth, and rapidly rising prices you need to be out of cash. The outlook for property prices might look bleak on the surface, with squeezed incomes and little growth in lending, but for British investors there have been few better long-term hedges against inflation than houses and land. That was true of every other inflationary cycle and it will be of this one as well. Gold will do well. So will commodity prices. Even better, try and spot the next OPEC-style cartel that can take advantage of loose monetary policy to squeeze up prices to extraordinary levels – iron ore would be one possibility.
Finally, get ready for the clampdown.
Central banks remain remarkably relaxed about inflation – for now. They may well have decided that with so much debt on personal and national balance sheets, modest inflation is the best way of getting the economy back into shape. But stagflation is a nasty condition: minimal growth and rising prices squeeze living standards very quickly, creating real pain. Eventually, inflation will have to be squeezed out of the system. That will create a lot of losers.
At the end of the cycle, we should end up back in the early 1980s – and ready for another two decade bull market in equities. But that part of the story is still a long way off.

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