Everyone’s worried about inflation again.
Stocks and bonds tanked after the January jobs report showed workers’ pay grew at the fastest clip since the end of the Great Recession. Investors feared that increasing earnings would lead to greater inflation, causing the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates faster than expected thereby slowly slamming the breaks on one of the longest periods of economic expansion in American history.
In fact, prices have barely risen over the past decade. So-called core inflation, which strips away volatile energy and food prices, has been below 2 percent for almost a year, and hasn’t risen above 2.3 percent since October 2008. The Fed’s preferred inflation metric suggests that prices won’t rise by the central bank’s 2 percent target until next year.
Nevertheless, people are concerned. Not only did the most recent inflation numbers come in above expectations, but when coupled with higher pay, a $1.5 trillion tax cut and a new budget agreement that adds $300 billion in new spending, market observers fret over a more hawkish Fed.
For the average American, the mere term causes flash panics. It conjures worries of a stagnating economy, rising prices, a falling dollar and an income that just can’t keep up with the cost of living.
But every economic event has winners and losers. Saving account yields may have been hurt by the Fed lowering rates after the recession, but fewer workers were laid off and investors enjoyed rising asset prices. The same is true of higher prices.
Inflation’s big winners
Fixed-rate mortgage holders: Anyone with large, fixed-rate debts like mortgages benefit from higher inflation, says Mark Thoma, professor of economics at the University of Oregon in Eugene.
“They’re going to be paying back with devalued dollars,” Thoma says.
A higher inflation rate also helps homeowners who bought during the peak of the real estate boom and now owe more than their home is worth by building equity quicker.
Investors in stocks: Stockholders get some protection from inflation because the same factors that raise the price of goods also raise the values of companies.
“Theoretically, the value of equities varies directly and proportionally with inflation,” Thoma says. “When you double all prices and wages, you double profits and you double the value of stocks, basically.
Investors in commodities: Bankrate senior financial analyst Greg McBride says commodity prices track the inflation rate closely. Buying storable commodities such as gold can be a good hedge against inflation.
Inflation’s many losers
The American economy: Dramatically high inflation historically has hurt the American economy, McBride says.
“If you look at periods of strong growth in U.S. history, the one constant has been a very modest rate of inflation over that time.”
In periods of high inflation, your standard of living declines hand-in-hand with your relative purchasing power. Also, borrowing to fund new businesses, buy homes and finance other tasks necessary for a healthy economy becomes more difficult as lenders jack up interest rates to hedge against further inflation.
Savers: In an economy where inflation is rising quickly, interest rates rarely keep up, causing savers’ hard-earned dollars to gradually lose buying power, McBride says. He suggests one way CD savers can fight this trend.
“Keep your maturities short, so you have the ability reinvest at higher rates as inflation works its way out,” McBride says. “You don’t want to be locked in long term at a low rate of return only to see inflation go racing past you.”
Retirees: A high inflation rate often means wage increases, but that won’t benefit those who are retired, McBride says—their pot of retirement money already is fixed.
“Higher inflation erodes the value of the savings that you have,” he says. “When inflation goes up, it tends to accelerate a lot faster than interest rates can keep up, so it erodes the buying power not only of your existing savings, but anybody who’s relying on interest income or investment income, like retirees.”
Investors in long-term bonds: In a high-inflation environment, “it’s on the bond side where there’s a lot more trouble,” Thoma says. “If you’re living off coupon bond payments, for instance, you’re going to lose when there’s inflation.”
McBride says bond investors can hedge against inflation by favoring shorter-term bonds and inflation-indexed bonds.
Variable-rate mortgage holders: Homeowners with mortgage rates that aren’t fixed see their borrowing costs climb periodically along with the broader inflation in the economy, leading to larger payments and decreased affordability.
Credit card debt holders: Most credit cards have a variable interest rate tied to a major index such as the prime rate. Because of this, credit card holders experience quickly climbing rates and higher payments in an inflationary environment.
First-time homebuyers: McBride says people looking to save for their first home in the midst of a high inflation rate are confronted with quickly rising home prices, high interest rates for mortgages and a relentless slide in the value of any money they’ve put away for a down payment.