Deflation? It’s inflation you need to watch

March 25, 2009

— David Kuo is a director at the financial Web site The Motley Fool. The views expressed are his own. —

david-kuo_motley-foolWhat are consumers supposed to make of the latest inflation numbers? Do we have inflation, deflation or a bit of stagflation?

Truth is, it depends on who you are and what you do with your money. The Retail Prices Index or RPI tells us that prices today are exactly the same as they were a year ago. The Office for National Statistics reported that RPI was unchanged at 0%.

But be very careful when bandying around the term “prices”. The RPI includes elements of housing costs. So it is better to talk about the cost of living rather than prices. Prices have risen compared to a year ago, but the total cost of living as measured by RPI has fallen because of the disproportionately large drop in mortgage costs as a result of lower interest rates.

The proof, if proof was needed, that prices have risen from a year ago, can be seen from the Consumer Prices Index (CPI). Instead of 0%, as measured by the RPI, prices as measured by the CPI are 3.2% higher. The CPI does not include housing costs, so it is a better measure for people on fixed-rate mortgage deals, and also for people in rented accommodation.

The upshot is that if you have taken on mortgage debt and chosen to spend rather than save, then you are worse off as a result.

However, it’s worth bearing in mind that both the RPI and CPI are broad measures of inflation. Consequently, the extremely large basket that is used to gauge inflation may not necessarily reflect the true changes in the cost of living that you may experience. Put another way, if we don’t buy exactly the same things that the ONS puts into its basket then we will experience a different rate of inflation.

To measure our personal inflation rates we need to compare our household budgets today with what we spent a year ago. Interestingly, a twice-yearly study by The Motley Fool has shown that personal inflation is consistently higher than the Government’s measure of inflation.

This should set alarm bells ringing for many of us.  If inflation refuses to die in a so-called deflationary economy, then the outlook for the cost of living could worsen when the Government finishes pouring money through quantitative easing or the printing of raw money.

The jury is still out as to whether quantitative easing will work. It is almost anyone’s guess. But history tells us that boosting the supply of money can be inflationary. This is because when there is too much money sloshing around an economy, chasing a limited supply of goods,  prices will inevitably rise.

Investors therefore have two clear choices. They can sit on their hand and hope that their nest eggs will not shrink to the size of quails’ eggs through inflation or they can heed the lessons of history and invest in assets that have demonstrated an ability to combat inflation.

Only two asset classes have successfully beaten inflation in the long term. These have been property and shares. Most homeowners already have a large exposure to property. So, it may be prudent to increase their exposure to shares to rebalance their way their wealth is distributed.

Interestingly, the yield on UK shares is currently around 5%. That is almost ten times more than interest earned in a traditional savings account. Of course your capital is exposed to both ups and downs.

Even better yields may be available from individual shares. But it is vital to choose carefully. After all, dividend payouts are at the discretion of the company’s directors. That said, companies are often reluctant to cut dividends unless they absolutely have to. And a careful selection of companies whose dividend payouts are strong could be just the panacea for embattled investors.

— Read David Kuo’s blog here or listen to the Motley Fool podcast.

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