When investors allocate to foreign stocks, they implicitly assume a secondary currency exposure on top of their local equity market returns. In discussing currency-hedged strategies with clients over the last few years, I’ve heard a few common explanations as to why investors like making this secondary “currency bet” on top of the global equity diversification they are obtaining.
Myth: Adding euro and yen exposure on top of local equity market returns is a good hedge against the purchasing power of your U.S. dollar.
A common argument for why people take on currency risk is that they want diversification from a declining U.S. dollar that could ultimately help maintain purchasing power within their portfolios for future consumption. I believe this is a misguided reason to take a secondary currency bet when buying foreign equities to diversify equity allocations.
We start this analysis by asking this: If you live and invest in the United States, do you have a house in Europe where it is beneficial to hedge future consumption in euros? Or do you vacation in Japan where you need to hedge future yen-denominated expenses? If not, I believe the concept that the euro and yen make a good hedge for the purchasing power of your U.S. dollar is a myth, because their values do not make good hedges for U.S. inflation rates.
What makes a potentially better hedge against inflation and the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar, in my view, is stocks, which represent claims on real assets and which historically have seen their dividends grow with inflation over time.
In the United States, inflation since 19701 has averaged just over 4% per year2 . During this period, dividend growth on the S&P 500 averaged 5.76% per year, approximately 1.5% per year above inflation3 . This means that dividends not only provided an inflation hedge, going up with inflation, but they provided real growth on top of inflation. Over long periods, I believe U.S. stocks are fairly good diversifiers for inflation generally.
What About Foreign Currencies?
The currencies represented in the MSCI EAFE Index returned 1.6% per year, with sweeping trends within that longer period back to December 30, 1970, where foreign currencies moved up and down versus the U.S. dollar. This means the dollar depreciated by about 1.6% per year versus the EAFE currencies over this period of approximately 43 years. The bottom line: This depreciation of the dollar (synonymous with appreciation of these foreign currencies against the U.S. dollar) failed to keep pace with inflation of more than 4% per year.
One period to focus on was one of the highest inflation periods in the U.S., from October 31, 1978, to February 28, 1985. Inflation in the U.S. was 7.5% per year, yet the U.S. dollar increased significantly and the EAFE currencies declined approximately 8% per year.
The fact that the U.S. dollar saw a large increase in its value against foreign currencies during one of highest inflation periods in the U.S. brings into serious question why foreign currencies should be a hedge against the declining purchasing power of the U.S. dollar. Stocks, by contrast, are a better long-term hedge because dividend growth has the potential to keep up with inflation over time. The dividend growth of the MSCI EAFE Index measured in local currency outpaced U.S. inflation during this period, meaning that stocks by themselves without the currency exposure—specifically their dividend growth—actually represented a better inflation hedge.
Inflation vs. Currency vs. Dividend Growth