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Against the current backdrop of unprecedented monetary stimulus, investors have become increasingly wary of future inflation and its potential degenerative effect on portfolio returns. While deflationary pressures appear more likely in the near term, the COVID-driven stimulus packages have created the potential for inflation once the pandemic has subsided. Predictably, investors are contemplating which asset classes can help hedge inflationary risk and real assets are a natural asset class to offset this risk.
During periods of upward price pressure, both real estate and infrastructure funds have at least some degree of pricing power, meaning they can boost rental income and revenue streams from their underlying holdings. In some cases, the embedded lease and contractual agreements of these holdings are linked to an inflation index, particularly for infrastructure. Therefore, the incomes of such holdings will rise as inflation rises and thus unlike fixed rate bonds, the real rate of return will not be eroded.
In order to examine this hypothesis, we compared traditional asset classes — stocks and bonds — to the real assets mentioned above: real estate and infrastructure. We compared cumulative returns during periods of above average inflation and during positive inflation surprises.¹ Although data is limited for real assets (particularly infrastructure), we analyzed cumulative returns for these four asset classes back to the earliest common date of index inception. Since the 2006 inception of the FTSE core infrastructure index, both real estate and infrastructure assets significantly outperformed U.S. equities and bonds during all periods when U.S. CPI rose above the period’s historical YOY average (1.9%). And during all quarters over the same period when developed world inflation experienced a material positive shock (“positive inflation surprises” defined previously), real assets also significantly outperformed both bonds and equities. Thus, while we have only experienced marginal inflationary pressure over the past 15 years, the data indicates that the inflation hedging mechanisms of real estate and infrastructure assets have been effective in protecting the purchasing power of portfolios. While it is difficult to forecast the ultimate timing, duration, and magnitude of inflation from this point forward, it is clear that real assets should offer a degree of insulation from the adverse effects of inflation.
¹ Surprises to developed world inflation are defined as periods where the expectations to the GDP weighted CPIs of the U.S., UK, and EU were below the actual CPI level by more than 10 bps.
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