Inflation is rising and the economy is decelerating, but those problems don’t add up to that nasty combination of stagnant growth and out-of-control price increases. Yet.
By Jim Jubak
Stagflation is coming. Lock up your portfolio. We could be on our way to a replay of the 1970s.
That’s the worry among an increasing number of investors as we head into 2008. It’s certainly possible for the year ahead, but it’s unlikely. In this column, I’ll look at what would have to go wrong for stagflation to return and how to position a portfolio if you think stagflation is more of a danger than I do.
The ’70s have a lot to answer for:
- "Airport," "Airport 1975," "Airport ’77" and "Airport ’79."
- The Village People and "YMCA."
- The breakup of the Beatles.
- President Jimmy Carter and the killer rabbit.
- Sonny Bono’s bell bottoms.
- And stagflation, that lethal brew of stagnant growth and high inflation.
In the United States, headline inflation started off the decade at 5.5% in 1970, peaked at 12.2% in 1974 and again at 13.3% in 1979, and didn’t drop below 4% until 1982. For the ’70s as a whole, inflation averaged 7.4% annually. In comparison, inflation in the 1960s averaged 2.5% annually.
Real economic growth tumbled. Subtracting for inflation, the economy grew by just 3.27% on average from 1970 to 1979, quite a drop from the 4.44% average annual growth in real gross domestic product recorded from 1960 to 1969. And in two years during the 1970s, after subtracting for inflation, the economy actually declined in size — by 0.5% in 1974 and 0.2% in 1975.
As you might expect, the 1970s weren’t a great time for investors. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index ($INX) returned a compound annual 5.9% from 1970 to 1979. With inflation running at an annual 7.4%, an investor in the stock market was losing ground every year to inflation. Bond investors had it even worse: The compound annual return on a long-term U.S. Treasury bond for the decade was just 4.8%, 2.6 percentage points lower than the inflation rate.
So you can understand why the prospect of stagflation in 2008 would send shivers up investors’ spines. How likely is that scenario? Let me break down stagflation into its two parts, the "stag" and the "flation." I’ll deal with "flation" first.