Investing for inflation: Turns out stocks and commodities outperform Bitcoin or gold as hedges

It has long been taken for granted that there are risky assets and safe hedges. But what if the risky assets are the safest hedges?

As Fortune wrote previously, Bitcoin’s volatile last few months has called into question its usefulness as a hedge against inflation, particularly due to the fact that it remains primarily tied to speculative trading, which makes it a highly volatile asset, as Boston College finance professor Leonard Kostovetsky told Fortune. There have been 13 days in 2021 alone where the price of Bitcoin has moved more than 10% in one direction, Kostovetsky says. “So it seems strange to think that a person who is worried about holding dollars because they lost 7% of their value over the last year would be comfortable holding Bitcoin which could (and often does) lose that much value in a single day,” Kostovetsky wrote in a Dec. 13 blog post

Digging deeper into Kostovetsky’s research shows a striking finding.

An analysis by Kostovetsky has found that gold and Bitcoin have been the two worst inflation hedges since 2013.

Using Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities (TIPS) as a proxy for where investors see inflation rates heading, the Boston College professor was able to study how assets’ daily prices correlated with investors’ changing expectations around inflation. In other words, the assets with the highest correlations are those that are most likely to rise when investors start to see inflation on the horizon. So, while Bitcoin had a daily correlation to expected inflation of 0.08 in 2021, stocks had a 0.24 correlation to expected inflation. Gold and real estate had correlations of 0.12. And commodities took the crown altogether with a correltion of 0.45 in 2021.

“If I wanted to keep my money safe, I’d rather be keeping it in Amazon stock than Bitcoin,” Kostovetsky previously told Fortune over the phone. 

Wall Street has been waking up to the falsities that lie in the gold-as-an-inflation-hedge narrative for some time now.

Gold first earned its title as an inflation hedge back in the 1970s when the precious metal and any asset tied to it soared in value. Data put together by Morningstar portfolio strategiest Amy Arnott in 2020 show that from 1973 to 1979 the LBMA Gold Price posted an annualized return of 31.77%. But its shine as an inflation hedge has worn off considerably since. From 1980 to 1984, its annualized returns were a negative 10.06%. And between 1988 and 1991, the LBMA Gold Price posted negative annualized returns again, this time of 7.58%. Gold has fallen about 0.6% to $1,766.35 per ounce over the span of 2021, so far.

On the other side of the coin is Bitcoin, which, in many ways, is just too young and volatile today to be a reliable inflation hedge for investors. The so-called digital gold has sold off more than 30% since Nov. 10, the day when the Labor Department released data showing the consumer price index had reached its highest level since 1990.

Part of the reason why equities have proven to be a good inflation hedge as of late likely lies with the Federal Reserve and Chairman Jerome Powell’s unprecedented transparency with the public about the central bank’s thinking. Equities have historically had a “love-hate relationship with unexpected inflation,” Sue Wang, an assistant portfolio manager in Vanguard’s Quantitative Equity Group, said, according to a September blog post on the money management giant’s website. But, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the Fed has continually signaled its thoughts around inflation and where it is headed to investors.

Commodities have a more reliable track record as an inflation hedge. Research led by Wang at Vanguard found that commodities’ inflation beta has sat between 7 and 9 over the last decade, suggesting, according to the blog post, that commodities would likely rise between 7% and 9% if unexpected inflation were to go up 1%.

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