Income + Tariffs + Inflation = Underperformance

By Richard Bernstein, Richard Bernstein Advisors

There is a headline-grabbing kerfuffle regarding new US tariffs on imported steel and aluminum, which come on top of tariffs previously placed on solar panels and washing machines.

At RBA, our policy of remaining “annoyingly dispassionate” during a fire-charged political environment leads us to focus on an investment issue that virtually no one is discussing.

Investors have flocked for years to income-oriented strategies in both the bond and equity markets, yet those strategies are the ones most at risk from US tariffs. Tariffs, by definition, are always inflationary, and inflation is the enemy of income.

Tariffs are, by definition, ALWAYS inflationary Investors need to remember that tariffs, by definition, are always inflationary. When a country is accused of dumping its goods that means the country is gaining market share by selling goods at unreasonably and unprofitably low prices. The tariff is meant to equate the dumping country’s prices with those of domestic producers in order to stem or reverse the ill begotten gain in market share. Tariffs are by definition inflationary because prices increase from an alleged artificially low price to a more normal and less competitive price. The price increase might be warranted or not, but the reality is that prices always increase as a result of a tariff.

Related: U.S. / China Trade War or Tit for Tat?

Another way to understand why prices always increase when tariffs are imposed is based on simple economics of supply and demand. Tariffs restrict the supply of goods. If one assumes that demand does not fall, then “Economics 101” highlights that coupling reduced supply and consistent demand results in higher prices. Reducing competition rarely results in lower prices.

Of course, there is a chance that higher prices actually reduce demand, and defeat the tariff’s ultimate goal of increasing demand for domestic producers. Domestic companies might gain market share, but the overall market could shrink in response to higher prices as other products substitute for the tariffed products. This is not theoretical. A major auto company has already stated that they may simply accelerate their use of carbon fiber if tariffs significantly distort steel and aluminum prices.

Inflation hurts income strategies

Inflation expectations troughed in June 2016 (!), and have been gradually rising since then. It seems immaterial from an investment point of view whether this increase in inflation expectations is secular or merely cyclical because investors are largely ill-positioned for any increase in inflation. Chart 1 shows that the 10-year T-note yield troughed roughly 3 weeks after inflation expectations troughed. The sizeable flows into fixed-income investments ran unabated until only recently despite the increase in yields.

Disinflation and deflation seem to be so ingrained into investors’ psyche that investors refuse to believe that inflation expectations are rising, and they do not seem aware how poorly their income-oriented portfolios are performing. Chart 2 shows the performance of stocks and bonds since inflation expectations troughed on June 16, 2016. Since that date, stocks have outperformed bonds on an annualized basis by more than 20% PER YEAR!

Chart 3 shows the performance of US economic sectors since June 2016. Income-oriented sectors (Real Estate, Telecom, and Utilities) have been the three worst performing sectors since inflation expectations troughed. More important, sectors that generally benefit from rising prices have significantly outperformed. The opportunity cost of investing in fixed-income or in income-oriented stocks instead of proinflation investments has been massive.