By Oliver Collin, fund manager, European Equities at Invesco
One of the most significant top-down discussions impacting asset prices (bonds and equities) today is inflation: are we heading into a period of inflation or not? The debate has been rumbling since the policy reaction to the Covid pandemic but is now reaching fever pitch as we’ve seen the first above trend inflation data.
As European equity investors, we believe we must have a view. While it would be nice to simply claim that we’re ‘bottom-up’ and ‘fundamental’, the fact is we can’t ignore the polarisation in markets of the last decade, underpinned by monetary dominance and fiscal repression.
Duration (defensive/Quality) assets have benefitted from the low inflation period and short duration assets (cyclical/Value) have suffered. This part is straightforward to understand: medium-term inflation influences the risk-free rate (RFR) and it’s the RFR that the market uses to discount future cash flows. If expectations are for sustained low inflation, then the discount rate is low and asset prices rise and vice versa.
The problem is that forecasting medium-term inflation isn’t straightforward. Nothing causes normally amiable economists to become more tribal than asking them to explain the causes of inflation. In this article, we explain why we believe the arguments for transitory inflation are something of a distraction and point to areas of the market that could do well as mid-term inflation emerges.
Monetarists vs Keynesians and the case for transitory inflation
Monetarists can ‘prove’ inflation is a consequence of broad money growth while Keynesians will eloquently explain that as the demand curve shifts (to the right) faster than the supply curve, then prices rise.
The Monetarist vs Keynesian arm wrestle has, we believe, become more visceral since the global financial crisis (GFC) because excess money supply hasn’t led to significant inflation. This has empowered the Keynesians to look for other rational reasoning of deflationary forces such as demographic trends (declining workforce), technology (increased productivity and labour marginalised) and globalisation (lower cost supply) with post crisis austerity the final straw.
Accordingly, when looking at the post-Covid world, Monetarists have less voice and the Keynesians argue these same three structural trends persist and, hence, any inflation we are seeing today is purely transitory.
This transitory narrative is a function of the severity of the enforced downturn which has impeded but, importantly, not destroyed supply (capital still exists). Therefore, as demand has recovered (surprisingly) fast, supply is temporarily struggling to cope and prices have risen, if only temporarily.