It's a lingering fear of deflation (the inability of businesses to raise prices) that prompts the U.S. Federal Reserve and its global central bank counterparts to keep interest rates pinned at historic lows, for an historic length of time. Eventually, policymakers will have to move from this stance.
For those at the economic controls and the investors trying to anticipate what's next, timing can be everything. Inflation can stymie a recovery and once it has crept in, it can be hard to squeeze out.
Buying a little inflation protection for individual portfolios may not be the cheapest insurance policy right now. Nonetheless, it's insurance some believe is crucial.
Portfolio managers Cohen & Steers launched a diversified real assets strategy earlier this year. They feel inflation is destined to move higher due to aggressive global monetary stimulus, growth in emerging markets, and barriers to production of key natural and agricultural resources. Yigal Jhirad, a senior portfolio manager at the firm, suggests a 10 percent to 20 percent portfolio slice be dedicated to inflation-fighting real assets, depending on an investor's risk profile, investment goals, and other factors.
Sure, folding in commodities and real estate exposure can insulate a portfolio against inflation, but proponents argue that there's an added benefit: Real assets have had a solid track record of historical returns and they provide diversification that's noncorrelated to stocks, which can potentially maximize overall performance. They can also fold in global economic exposure without the risk and cost of direct investment in overseas stocks.
Over the past few years, prices for commodities like gold, energy, and agricultural products have moved sharply higher. Some observers see this as a harbinger of greater inflation to come; others dismiss the rise as more transitory. They believe the spike simply drives prices out of reach.
Said Cohen & Steers in a recent investor publication: "This latter view is supported by an overhang of slowing economic growth, as developed markets work through a variety of debt and fiscal challenges. But it is not supported by the everyday experience of the American consumer, saddled with rising prices for food and energy."
Investors are bombarded with a mixed message about economic risks, especially in the near- to medium-term.
Data from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates futures trading on commodities, showed that hedge funds and other large money managers scaled back bullish positioning in commodities in late March. The Standard & Poor's GSCI Spot Index of 24 raw materials fell more than 2 percent as March came to a close, trimming its advance so far this year to 6.8 percent. Goldman Sachs cut its three-month commodities recommendation in a note dated March 28, saying targets had been met and warning that the global economy will soften in the near term. Societe Generale and other investment banks have issued research notes warning about stalling Chinese corporate profits. European debt rescue efforts continue.
Goldman Sachs does maintain its call for higher gold and raw materials prices over time. While raw materials may drop or be little changed in the near term, they will probably gain 10 percent over the next 12 months, the analysts said in the research note. Goldman's target for crude oil is $123.50 a barrel, 20 percent higher than where it stood March 30. Gold may reach $1,940 an ounce, up 16 percent.
Then the Fed weighs in, again: "Inflation has been subdued in recent months although prices of crude oil and gasoline have increased lately," the Federal Open Market Committee said in a statement following a March 13 meeting. Oil will "push up inflation temporarily, but the committee anticipates that subsequently inflation will run at or below the rate that it judges most consistent with its dual mandate" of stable prices and maximum employment.