Best Investments During Deflation ~ market folly

Monday, August 9, 2010

Best Investments During Deflation

Today we're laying a loose framework for the best investments during deflation. Why? Because deflationary signals have reared their ugly head as of late. Not to mention, many prominent investment managers have voiced their concern about the dreaded scenario. While inflation versus deflation has been the great debate over the past two years, the deflationistas have been boasting quite loudly as of late.

We've detailed how David Gerstenhaber's global macro hedge fund Argonaut Capital thinks deflation is the greater risk. Additionally, Broyhill's Affinity hedge fund has been betting on deflation as of late. PIMCO's bond king Bill Gross has been buying treasuries in order to combat these fears. And for more, The Reformed Broker has a quick summary of the New York Times' deflation round-up as well.

While investing during the dreaded 'D' word is not impossible, the options to preserve and grow capital are certainly limited. So, what is the best investment for deflation? Very broadly and in no particular order, here's some potential answers:

Cash/US Dollar: The phrase "cash is king" is often cliche. It's not cliche during deflation, it's rule number one. Assuredly, cash is one of the few 'safe' investments you can make in this scenario. Over the normal course of investing, most investors focus on their return on capital. This time around, the focus is simply on return *of* capital. While many wouldn't consider this an investment, having physical cash notes saved and on hand can be crucial during extreme situations including: bank failures, a collapse in credit, or the government defaulting on its debt. Not to mention, the US dollar has been a strong performer during deflationary times. Holding the physical currency is easy enough, but those wishing to further their wager can play the PowerShares US Dollar Bullish Index (UUP).

Pay Off Debt: Again while 'paying down debt' doesn't sound like an investment, it most definitely is during deflation. In a period where literally every single dollar matters, each dollar of debt can become crippling.

Buy Long-Term Bonds: Alternative to cash, fixed income is also seen as an option for those who seek protection. While fixed income yields decline due to Federal Reserve easing in an effort to combat deflation, the underlying bond should appreciate (or at the very least, depreciate much less than equities). US Treasuries are highly coveted here as they are the safest and most in-demand. If one were to go the corporate bond route, seeking high quality bonds is preferred. The thesis behind this play is laid out by Broyhill's Affinity hedge fund in their presentations: ten reasons to buy bonds as well as their bet on long-term treasuries. The most logical wager here would be the iShares Barclays 20+ year Treasury (TLT).

Short Equities: Traditional investments will start to suffer as underlying companies will see lower margins and losses. Not to mention, highly leveraged companies make ideal short selling targets and certain companies can face the risk of becoming insolvent. If your conviction is strong enough, you could simply short the S&P 500 index (SPY). There is, however, one potential safe haven in equities (keyword being 'potential'), which brings us to the next investment:

Buy High Quality Dividend Paying Stocks: Understand that during deflation, equities in general are one of the major investments to avoid. However, high quality stocks could be a potentially dim light in an otherwise dark scenario. While the majority of companies will lose pricing power and succumb to weak margins, large cap high quality companies that dominate their industries may be able to maintain pricing power. Not to mention, many of these stocks pay dividends which generate valuable cash during deflation. Seek companies with pristine balance sheets.

GMO's Jeremy Grantham recently voiced concern about deflation and one of his few investment recommendations was to buy high quality stocks. For ideas, hedge fund T2 Partners recently issued a presentation on 3 large cap stocks. Sectors to look toward include healthcare, technology, and telecom as those have outperformed in Japan during their deflationary lost decade. Microsoft (MSFT) is one name that has been repeatedly mentioned by strategists and managers. Keep in mind though that despite being high quality blue-chip companies, these are still equities. As such, there is obviously inherent risk in owning them during deflation.

Short Housing/Avoid Real Estate: In deflation, prices fall. As such, rent rather than own. Stand back and let the landlords watch the values of their properties plummet. You can short the iShares Dow Jones US Real Estate (IYR) for some exposure.

Short Leverage: Deleveraging should be a big theme playing out in the future, environment notwithstanding. As mentioned earlier, short the equity of companies that have poor balance sheets and are highly levered. In deflation, leverage begins to unwind and currency plays can be found. A massive leveraged carry trade in the Yen has taken place over the years and as such would be unwound in deflation, thus benefiting the Yen.

Long Technology: Regardless of environment, technology will advance and will be in demand. The technology sector was highlighted as one of the few areas to possible allocate capital in high quality equities. Companies that have strangleholds on their industry should have an advantage. A basket of technology stocks could be purchased via the technology exchange traded fund (XLK). However, that gives you exposure to a lot of companies and it's probably more preferable to single out high quality technology names with pristine balance sheets such as Microsoft (MSFT), Intel (INTC), and Cisco Systems (CSCO).

Gold: Conventional wisdom says to avoid precious metals during deflation. During the Great Depression from 1929-1932, commodities in general crashed. However, in very extreme circumstances (emphasis on extreme), some have argued that gold can make sense when acting as currency. The majority of proponents for owning gold during deflation would cite its store of value or hedge against uncertainty. While gold can be played via the SPDR Gold Fund (GLD), many hedge funds advocate physical gold. That said, those doing so are mainly seeking inflationary protection.

Buy TIPS: Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, or TIPS, serve as long-term protection from inflation. Buying TIPS during deflation? What's the point? This is an option if investors believe that deflation will eventually lead to inflation two or three years later. As policy makers attempt to combat deflation, the natural antidote is inflationary medicine. As such, investors looking further down the road can fend off these inflationary pressures with TIPS. And even if deflation persists for an extended period of time, TIPS still produce income via yield and investors can regain their bond's face value at maturity. This can be played via iShares Barclays TIPS Bond Fund (TIP) for those looking for an easy solution.

That sums up some of the best ways to position a portfolio when confronted with deflation. Recent concern is duly warranted considering that deflation typically rears its ugly head after periods of prolonged globalization and global growth. Such growth leads to increased investment, a massive increase in production, and thus excess capacity all around the world. This excess capacity then brings forth lower prices. In deflation, companies suffer while the consumer is the real winner. The above present theoretical options of how to invest during such a scenario. Make no mistake though, investing during deflation can be quite difficult and painful.

Back in August 2008 when the crisis was heating up, we penned a very broad outline of investment scenarios for inflation versus deflation. During the pinnacle of the crisis, it wasn't quite clear which situation would play out so it made sense to lay a framework for each context. (And arguably, it's still not entirely clear. Many have hypothesized that we'll see a compromise of views: deflation in the near-term and inflation in the long-term). A few months ago, inflation was all the rage. Now, deflation is the primary concern. Investors have been flip-flopping more frequently than politicians as of late.

Regardless of outcome, it makes sense to be prepared for either environment. Check back tomorrow as we'll turn the tables and outline the best investments during inflation in order to present both sides of the argument. In the mean time, be sure to see what hedge funds are investing in these days with our daily coverage.

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