Canada’s inflation rate is the highest it has been since 2003. Last year we experienced a 4.7% increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) (StatsCan: reported November 2021). Annual inflation in the US is running at 6.8%, Germany 5.2% and the UK 4.6% (Source: OECD). This is much higher than many of us have experienced in over 20 years and those under the age of 40 may have never experienced in their lives.
Inflation is in the news with good reason – because we see and feel price increases when we shop too. We want to be a part of the discussion and navigate it together with you.
WHat is Inflation?
Inflation is the decline of purchasing power of your money over time. It is often measured by comparing the price of a basket of goods and services from one year to the next. If the basket cost $100 in the first year and $102 in the second, then inflation would be calculated at 2%. This basket of goods and services method is a useful tool to measure inflation. Yet it is only measures inflation of the goods and services included in the basket in the proportion they determine. Alcohol, tobacco and recreational cannabis, for example, feature prominently in this basket. If your spending on goods and services differs from the CPI proportion, you may experience higher or lower prices than the CPI would indicate. Click here to see what is included in the CPI basket.
A one-year increase may seem inconsequential but over decades this can really add up.
The most extreme examples of inflation are those in countries such as Zimbabwe in 2007 – 2009 and Germany between World War I and World War II. In these countries inflation was so high that the prices of goods were doubling every few days. This led to wheelbarrows of cash being used to buy groceries, or cash being burned because it was cheaper than using it to buy wood. These are extreme outliers often driven by unique and specific circumstances such as civil unrest and war (Source: Forbes). We have here in our office a $50 trillion bill (its current value is ~$20, but only as a collector’s item) from Zimbabwe that serves as our reminder of what “money” means. It is simply a claim against real goods and services. If more money is injected into an economy with no more goods and services to consume with that money, then it stands to reason that more dollars are competing for the same things and prices must increase. This is a truth learned the hard way in countries such as Zimbabwe where the value of a dollar became effectively worthless.
WHat causes Inflation?
The causes of inflation are both simple and complicated.
The simple reason for inflation is a mismatch between demand and supply. This is because either there is additional demand or a reduction in supply that forces the price up. In a healthy economy this inflation is mitigated, businesses can increase production to meet the demand and most supply disruptions are temporary in nature or can be worked around.
During the pandemic we have experienced both. Many service businesses closed, resulting in individuals having more money available to purchase goods. At the same time disruptions in production and shipping resulted in lower supply. This combined to increase the costs of many goods and services.
The more complicated causes of inflation are driven by fiscal and monetary policy. Stimulative fiscal policy moves by the government such as cutting taxes or spending on infrastructure projects lead to increased demand for goods and services leading to inflation. The monetary policy decision to reduce interest rates leads to more money being available to be lent to business and consumers. This increases the money available throughout the economy to be spent on goods and services, increasing the costs.
Those in charge of fiscal and monetary policy have a tight rope to walk as they navigate keeping the economy growing while at the same time keeping inflation low.
Over the past two years extraordinary amounts of money has been added to economies and interest rates at historically low levels were dropped even further to mitigate the financial effects of the pandemic.
Finally, inflation is also driven by sentiment. If businesses believe their costs will increase in the future, they will increase their sale prices. If individuals believe the price of goods will increase, they will demand higher wages which increases costs for their employers which leads to increased sale prices. As you can see the fear with inflation is that it feeds on itself and becomes self-reinforcing.
What Are the predictions?
Economists are about as good at making accurate predictions as meteorologists, but many of them see this increase in inflation being temporary. As we move past the pandemic and supply chains are repaired, many economists see inflation settling back to the 2-3% range by the end of 2023 (Source: OECD).
To achieve this goal of decreasing inflation, central banks across the developed world will begin increasing interest rates, likely multiple times in 2022 and 2023. This reduces the availability of money in the economy and should result in a dampening of inflation.
What Can We Do?
The first advice is not to panic. It is unlikely we will see inflation anything like the double-digit inflation of the 1970s. Inflation is higher than we are used to and is likely to stay higher for the next two years. This does not forebode a new world where drastic action is necessary.
As mentioned earlier, inflation is the decline of purchasing power of a currency. Therefore, those who are most affected are those who are holding large amounts of cash or assets denominated in currency, such as bonds. These assets become less valuable in a high inflation world.
We believe that the best place to invest your money over the long term is into the ownership of a diversified basket of quality businesses through the mutual funds you own. These are businesses that can increase prices to maintain their profit margins and have the flexibility and ability to adjust to changing business conditions. This approach is what has enabled our clients to succeed in a variety of economic environments over 50 years – and why we are committed to continuing with this discipline.