Which stocks do best during high inflation?

A look at past inflationary periods offers clues on where to invest.

  • By Derek Horstmeyer,
  • The Wall Street Journal
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Investors commonly hear that when inflation surges, it is best to put your money into physical assets that track the jump in prices, with real estate often suggested as the best option. But physical assets, particularly properties, generally can’t be bought as easily or quickly as securities, and acquiring them often entails significant transaction costs.

The second-best option is usually to rebalance your stock portfolio to shift it into industries that do well in an inflationary environment. So, when inflation surges, what industries do best for a stock portfolio?

To sum up: Shares in real-estate investment trusts or companies in the real-estate industry are not the best option. Stocks in the materials and energy industries outperform all others by a long shot, according to the findings of a study I conducted with my research assistants, Zihan Chen and Yiming Xie.

We gathered data on the returns for all stocks listed on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq over the past 50 years. We then examined the course of the consumer-price index over those years and found three spikes in prices during which the inflation rate doubled in less than 24 months: March 1973 to May 1975, April 1978 to September 1980, and February 2021 to March 2022.

We separated each company in our data set into one of 10 industries, and examined how the median stock in each industry, in terms of returns, performed during those three periods of surging inflation.

The median real-estate stock delivered a 3.32% annualized return over the three periods, far below the annualized returns of 18% for the median energy company and 16.81% for the median materials company.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, healthcare (including pharmaceuticals) performed the worst, with an annualized return of minus 8.44%, followed by consumer staples at minus 6.73%, consumer discretionary at minus 5.71%, utilities at minus 4% and technology at minus 3.64%.

The negative results for healthcare, tech and consumer discretionary are understandable, because these are interest-rate-sensitive industries. But the results for consumer staples and utilities might surprise some investors, because these are often thought of as safe assets in rough times.

At the end of the day, the best move for investors who want to reposition their portfolios quickly when inflation is surging is to shift into materials and energy companies.

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