In late March 2020, Congress approved an unprecedented $2 trillion ($2,200,000,000,000) stimulus package to avert the widespread collapse of businesses and employment in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Federal Reserve announced that it will buy an indefinite amount of Treasury bonds to inject money into the economy, for an indefinite period.
Then on April 9, the Fed announced it would lend another $2.3 trillion to small businesses, local governments, and other mainstays of the “Main Street” economy.
Still more stimulus came on April 24, when Congress and President Trump approved another $310 billion for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. The measure included another $60 billion in disaster relief loans.
And given that nearly 26 million Americans applied for unemployment in just five weeks in early spring, many analysts predict more rounds of stimulus on the way as well.
That money has to come from somewhere. The money spent by Congress will have to be borrowed, but the Federal Reserve will ease that pain by simply issuing new loans out of thin air. Read: printing money, even if it happens through digital ones-and-zeroes rather than a printing press.
All of which means inflation could skyrocket over the next few years. So what’s an investor to do, to prevent their greenbacks from losing all their value?
A (Quick) Overview of Inflation
Around 30 years ago in 1990, one dollar was worth more than twice today’s dollar. Play around with the BLS inflation calculator to get a sense of the power of inflation for yourself.
The average cup of coffee cost $1.49; today, people blow several times that on Starbucks. The purchasing power of a million dollars today only required about $500,000 back then.
When people are willing to pay more money for goods and services, their cost goes up. The more money is available in the economy, the more people are willing to spend, driving up costs and reducing the value of a single dollar.
Imagine a simplified example. You’re in a small village with a few cows, and no one has much money, so no one is willing to spend much on a pint of milk. One day a rich person comes through town, and gives every villager a hefty stack of gold coins before leaving. Flush with money, you stroll up to the one and only local dairy farmer and ask for two pints of milk. The farmer apologizes, explaining she’s sold out for today, as she had many people show up that day to buy milk. You come back tomorrow, but again the farmer has sold out. You make the farmer an offer: if she saves you a pint of milk tomorrow, you’ll pay double the going rate.
Thus begins a spike in inflation, because your fellow villagers are also willing to pay more, since there’s so much more money floating around the village. Prices skyrocket, and each coin becomes worth only a fraction of its previous value.
Because ultimately, value comes from rarity. The more common a thing is, the less value it holds.
Too much inflation is, of course, a bad thing. Look no further than the hyperinflation Germany experienced in the 1920s, in which notes lost value so fast that wives showed up to their husband’s factories with wheelbarrows several times a day to quickly convert their pay to real goods like food. True story.
But too little inflation — or worse, deflation — is also bad. It means people don’t have enough money and aren’t spending or investing it: actions that drive economic growth.
As a general rule, the Federal Reserve aims for around 2% inflation each year.
Real Estate as a Hedge Against Inflation
Real estate values and rents not only tend to rise with inflation, but actually drive inflation itself. As a result, they often rise faster than inflation.
In 1990, the median US home price was $117,000, per the Federal Reserve. Yet home prices entered 2020 with a median value of $324,500 — nearly three times higher than 1990, despite inflation only accounting for a fraction of that rise.
Because real estate is, well, real, it has intrinsic value. Regardless of the currency, people need and want it, and adjust their offers to buy or rent it as needed to secure it. That makes it one of the most reliable ways to hedge against inflation.
Rental Properties’ Protection from Inflation
Every year, the dollar loses a little value. And every year, landlords raise rents (or at least they should), to keep pace with or surpass inflation.
For this reason, rental properties offer excellent protection from inflation. You buy the property with today’s dollars, borrow a fixed-interest rental property loan, and then raise rents even as your mortgage payment stays the same.
Say you bought a median house 30 years ago for $117,000, and borrowed a $100,000 rental property loan at 5% interest. Your monthly payment would be $536.82.
At that time, imagine the property rented for $1,400 per month. You earned a reasonable cash-on-cash return, but nothing earth-shattering. But with every year that went by, you raised the rent. Today, it rents for $3,200 per month — yet you still only pay $536.82 for the mortgage payment.
And hey, after 30 years, you’d have just about paid the loan off entirely, dropping it to $0.
See how inflation favors landlords and real estate investors?
Granted, we live in unusual times in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak. Not every investor feels comfortable buying real estate during the pandemic, particularly given the restrictions on eviction for unpaid rents.
But investors will find plenty of motivated sellers and opportunities to negotiate great real estate deals. And if inflation jumps over the next few years, they’ll certainly be glad they scooped up properties before prices spiked.
Mark Twain famously put it like this: “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore.”
As with rental properties, land has intrinsic value. We need it for farming, for building homes on, for building commercial properties on, or simply for recreation such as fishing and hiking.
And the more humans we populate the world with, the scarcer and more valuable land becomes. Which makes land an excellent hedge against inflation.
If you’re new to the idea of land investing, check out this case study of a land investor who reached financial independence in just 18 months. Some of his parcels he bought for as little as $100!
When you’re ready to take the plunge into land investing, take this outstanding land investing course from our colleague Seth Williams. His course is by far the best land course on the Internet, extremely detailed and rich with value.
Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs)
You don’t have to buy real estate directly to invest in it. There are many types of real estate investments, some of which are completely passive.
With a regular brokerage account, you can buy publicly traded REITs. By law, these funds must pay out at least 90% of their profits in dividends, making them a reliable source of passive income. But not necessarily a great source of growth, and therefore inflation protection.
Private REITs are far less regulated, making them more flexible. Some pay high dividends, others reinvest much of their revenue into new properties.
But with that lesser regulation comes an even greater responsibility on your end to research funds before investing. I’ve invested some of my personal money in Fundrise and Streitwise to further diversify my assets. So far so good, although admittedly I haven’t owned them for very long.
Let me be clear: the coronavirus pandemic is probably not a great time to invest in real estate-secured loans. Most analysts, myself included, predict mass loan defaults.
But that doesn’t mean you should dismiss secured loans as an investment. At a certain point in the economic crisis and subsequent recovery — but before inflation potentially takes off — lending money secured by real estate will provide both strong returns and a hedge against inflation.
I’ve lent money in the form of private notes to several real estate investors I know. I’ve also lent money through crowdfunding platforms like GroundFloor. It makes for an easy and completely passive way to protect yourself against inflation, particularly if you invest in short-term loans like I do.
Refinance Adjustable Long-Term Loans
While not an “investment” per se, your leverage directly impacts your investment returns.
One of the ways that the Federal Reserve combats inflation is by raising interest rates. When inflation runs rampant, the Fed makes borrowing far more expensive. Banks lend less, companies borrow and spend less, and individuals follow suit.
But you know what higher interest rates mean for adjustable-rate loans. Expect your rates to leap upward in that scenario.
Yes, credit is tight right now during the coronavirus pandemic. But interest rates are also extremely low, with the fed funds rate near 0%. If you have an adjustable rate mortgage or rental property loan, consider refinancing it to fixed interest.
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Other Investments to Protect Against Inflation
We love real estate around here, if you couldn’t tell. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only option on the table for hedging against inflation.
As you review your entire investment portfolio, keep these investments in mind for diversified protection from inflation.
When you own a stock, you own a tiny share in a company. And when inflation hits, what do companies do?
They raise prices accordingly.
Investors drive up stock prices by buying more shares of companies that do well. With more money in circulation, investors put that money to work, often by investing in fundamentally-sound companies. That makes good companies’ stocks nearly inflation-proof.
Sure, inflation could devalue your dollar by 5% next year. But if your stocks rise by 15%, then you still earn a “real” return of 10%.
Don’t get hung up on the returns of real estate vs. stocks. Anyone pursuing financial independence should buy both, because they bring different strengths to the table and serve different roles in your portfolio.
Commodities, such as precious metals, oil and natural gas, grains, beef, orange juice, and electricity, all have intrinsic value just like real estate. People still need and want them just as much in inflationary periods as in normal ones, so they pay the going rate.
You don’t need to go out and hoard orange juice bottles or tanks of oil in your garage. Instead, just buy shares in a commodity ETF, such as the iShares S&P GSCI Commodity-Indexed Trust (GSG) or the WisdomTree Continuous Commodity Index Fund (GCC).
Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS)
TIPS ensure you never lose money to inflation. Granted, as Treasury bonds, they won’t blow you away with their returns either. But at least they provide a guaranteed hedge against inflation.
They work like this: in addition to the standard interest these bonds pay, the face value adjusts up or down based on inflation (specifically the change in the Consumer Price Index or CPI). For example, you buy a TIPS bond for $1,000, that pays 2% in annual interest. In that first year, you earn $20 from the interest payouts.
But imagine inflation spiked by 4% that year. Ordinarily, that would mean you actually had a real loss of 2% on your money. However TIPS adjust the face value to reflect that jump in inflation.
At the end of the year, the principal of your TIPS rises from $1,000 to $1,040. So the following year, they pay out your interest based on $1,040, not your original $1,000. So instead of paying $20 the following year, they’d pay you $20.80.
When they mature, you get the face value for them (or the original amount in the unlikely event of deflation).
Don’t forget, they’re still Treasury bonds. Don’t expect to get rich off of them. But they do offer protection against inflation.
What to Avoid When Hedging Against Inflation
The investments above are all well and good, but what do you need to watch out for during inflationary periods?
First, avoid long-term bonds that lock you in for a low interest rate. If you lend money at a fixed 2%, and inflation soars at 5%, you effectively lose 3% on your money each year. In technical terms, you’re f#cked.
The inverse is also true: you want to borrow money at fixed, low interest rates. You want to be the one borrowing at 2% when inflation jumps.
Note the emphasis on fixed low interest. As outlined above, you want to avoid adjustable rate loans when inflation comes a-knocking. Remember, the Fed raises interest rates to combat inflation!
Finally, in your stock portfolio, avoid dividend-oriented stocks in favor of growth-oriented stocks. A reliable dividend of 5% sounds great, until inflation eats up all of it. If the only real appeal of the stock is its dividend, look elsewhere. Specifically, look to stocks whose appeal lies in their upward price momentum.
Real estate makes an outstanding hedge against inflation. That goes particularly for direct real estate ownership, but also applies to indirect real estate investments like private REITs and property-secured loans.
But real estate isn’t your only option to protect from inflation. Look to growth-oriented stocks, commodities, and TIPS as additional options. For those pursuing FIRE, lean more into growth-oriented stocks and leave the commodities and TIPS for others.
They call inflation the “worst tax” or the “silent tax” because it saps your money without you even noticing. But it doesn’t hit everyone equally; those who know how to hedge against inflation can turn it to their advantage, rather than succumb to it.
How do you hedge against inflation? What investments do you like to protect your assets from inflation?
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About the Author
G. Brian Davis is a landlord, real estate investor, and co-founder of SparkRental. His mission: to help 5,000 people reach financial independence by replacing their 9-5 jobs with rental income. If you want to be one of them, join Brian, Deni, and guest Scott Hoefler for a free masterclass on how Scott ditched his day job in under five years.