Buffett devoted significant portions of Berkshire annual letters in the late 1970s and early 1980s — amid high inflation in the United States — to discussing what rising prices mean for stocks, corporate balance sheets and investors. Buffett lived and invested through a period when inflation hit 14 percent and mortgage rates spiked as high as 20 percent — amid what some called the greatest American macroeconomic failure of the post-World War II period.
He never lost that focus on — or fear of — inflation, either.
In June 2008, as the price of gas went above $4, Buffett said “exploding” inflation was the biggest risk to the economy. “I think inflation is really picking up,” Buffett said on CNBC. “It’s huge right now, whether it’s steel or oil,” he continued. “We see it everywhere.”
Do you remember what happened after that?
In 2010, as the Federal Reserve continued its quantitative easing program, Buffett sent the government a “thank you note” (in the form of an op-ed) for its actions, rather than its paralysis or politicking, after the crisis. But he also warned that same year, “We are following policies that unless changed will eventually lead to lots of inflation down the road.”
He added, “We have started down a path you don’t want to go down.”
As the markets sank in the past two weeks, headlines suggested that the end of the central bank easy money era was finally “sinking in.” At the 2013 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, Buffett had already warned, “QE is like watching a good movie, because I don’t know how it will end. Anyone who owns stocks will reevaluate his hand when it happens, and that will happen very quickly.”
In a classic piece for Fortune magazine in 1977, Buffett outlined his views on inflation: “The arithmetic makes it plain that inflation is a far more devastating tax than anything that has been enacted by our legislatures. The inflation tax has a fantastic ability to simply consume capital. … If you feel you can dance in and out of securities in a way that defeats the inflation tax, I would like to be your broker — but not your partner.”
The world, and economy, are very different places now than when Buffett’s annual letters to Berkshire Hathaway shareholders took up inflation and investing. Income-tax rates have changed. Back then, bond yields were much, much higher, as were savings rates. And it’s just the first signs of inflation that now have been spotted. It was the rise in wages in the last nonfarm payroll report that first rattled markets. And the Consumer Price Index did rise more than expected in the latest data, released on Wednesday, Feb. 14.
Other economic factors are eerily, or at least partially, similar. In the Vietnam War era the government’s rapid increase of the federal deficit began the inflation cycle that peaked in the late ’70s. The latest projections from a government budget watchdog forecasts that the annual deficit will double from what was expected just two and half years ago ($600 million), to $1.2 trillion in 2019, due to the tax cuts and just-approved spending package.
It’s worth remembering that the worst stock performance of the 1970s came not when inflation peaked but when it first spiked rapidly. From 1972 to 1973, inflation doubled to more than 6 percent. By 1974 it was 11 percent. In those two years, the S&P 500 declined by a combined 40 percent. Inflation was higher in 1979 and 1980, topping out at 13.5 percent, by which time the S&P 500 had long returned to positive performance, though on an inflation-adjusted base. It was a lost decade for stocks.
So who better than Buffett to explain some of the basic mechanisms at work when stocks run into inflation? As Buffett stated in one of his inflationary era letters, when it comes to inflation and stocks, there is one unsolvable problem: “Berkshire has no corporate solution to the problem. (We’ll say it again next year, too.) Inflation does not improve our return on equity.”
Here are some other thoughts from Buffett on investing during inflationary periods.