Monday, January 4, 2010

Inflation may be coming. Time to look for a hedge. - By Whitney Tilson and John Heins

Because inflation hasn't afflicted America in some 30 years, it's worth reviewing what rising prices might mean for stock investors. In a 1977 article on the subject in Fortune, Warren Buffett went to great lengths to disabuse shareholders of the notion that they could skate through inflationary times unscathed. He wrote that companies have little ability to improve returns on capital when inflation is high, so investors aren't willing to pay as much for each dollar of corporate earnings. The subpar 5.2 percent annualized return for the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index from 1973 through the end of 1981, a span during which inflation rates often hit double digits, provides ample support for that argument (adjusted for inflation, stock returns were negative).

We'd love for policymakers to successfully reignite the U.S. economy without also rekindling inflation. The more prudent course, however, is to assume that all won't go smoothly.

What do we recommend? We respect many of those who advocate gold, but, like Ackman and Robertson, we believe it's too difficult to assign a value to the metal. Instead, we prefer high-quality companies with significant foreign exposure and the ability to raise prices. Both Microsoft and Pfizer recently reported better-than-expected earnings that signal the resiliency of each company's business. In Microsoft's case, those results don't yet reflect the launch of its Windows 7 operating system, which we think will result in much better profits than analysts expect.

You can also hedge against rising inflation by investing in businesses tied to natural resources, from crude oil to agricultural commodities. One favorite in this category is Contango Oil & Gas, which explores for energy mostly in the Gulf of Mexico.

More adventurous investors who think that higher inflation will lead to higher interest rates can bet against long-term U.S. Treasury securities through options and various exchange-traded funds (bond prices generally fall when rates rise). For example, we've shorted iShares Barclays 20+ Year Treasury Bond ETF, which is designed to gain value when yields fall and Treasury-bond prices rise. If inflation rises rapidly and rates follow suit, Treasury bonds will perform poorly.


Related previous post: Warren Buffett’s Comments on Inflation