Surge of Inflation Isn’t a Guaranteed Portfolio Wrecker

Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987 to 2006, sent a shiver through investors last week.

In an interview on “The David Rubenstein Show: Peer-to-Peer Conversations” on Bloomberg TV, Greenspan warned that the U.S. may be poised for a period of stagflation, a rare combination of high inflation and high unemployment.

The U.S. last experienced such an episode in the 1970s and early 1980s, and the memory still haunts those who lived through it. The annual inflation rate jumped to 9.8 percent in 1980 from 2.9 percent in 1972, according to the core PCE price index, a measure of personal consumption expenditures excluding food and energy and the Fed’s preferred inflation gauge. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate swelled to 10.8 percent in 1982 from 3.5 percent in 1969, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

For members of Generation X — which includes me — and subsequent generations, stagflation is ancient history. Annual inflation hasn’t topped 3 percent since 1993 and has averaged just 1.8 percent since then. And the current unemployment rate of 3.7 percent is the lowest since 1969.

Still, the implications for investors of skyrocketing inflation and unemployment come quickly to mind. According to lore, a surge in inflation would lift interest rates, causing bond prices to decline and thereby wrecking bond portfolios. Higher interest rates would also thump stock prices because future corporate earnings would be worth less when discounted at higher rates. And all of that would come when many investors would lean on their savings to offset higher living costs and possible bouts of unemployment.

It’s not clear, however, how much of that received wisdom is reliable. Yes, when inflation creeps up, interest rates tend to follow. The correlation between annual inflation and the yield on 10-year Treasuries has been strongly positive (0.76) since 1959, the first year for which numbers are available for the core CPE price index. (A correlation of 1 implies that two variables move perfectly in the same direction, whereas a correlation of negative 1 implies that two variables move perfectly in the opposite direction.)

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