Adapting Your Financial Strategy During High Inflation

With Andrew Sykes, Chris Oates, Young Han and David Berthon-Jones CFA | S2 E12


Inflation impacts cost of-living, business strategies and investment portfolios – here’s what you can do about it.

Inflation has been making waves in the media, driving consecutive interest rate hikes from the Reserve Bank. Whether you're working for a salary, managing your own business, or planning for retirement, inflation is having an impact on your finances.    
You need to understand that impact to make sure you adjust your financial strategy in the right direction. 

In this episode of talkBIG, our regular hosts are joined by special guest David Berthon-Jones to discuss the impact of inflation as well as strategies for managing finances and investments in a high-inflation economy. Along the way, they explore some of the potential avenues for profit, the importance of adapting investment portfolios and the relationship between inflation and interest rates. They also touch on strategies for adjusting household budgets and business approaches to tackle inflation.

Just remember that while inflation poses challenges, it also presents opportunities for those who navigate it wisely. Staying informed, diversifying investments, and seeking professional advice are key to positioning yourself for financial success in a high-inflation environment.   

If you’re feeling the pinch of rising prices and wondering how to safeguard your financial future, tune in now. 


The RSM talkBIG crew are here to help.




Contact your local RSM adviser.

Highlights from the episode:

Generating profits when inflation is high    
How inflation impacts the composition and allocation of investment portfolios    
Lifting interest rates to control inflation    
Balancing risk vs reward in investment portfolios    
Changing investment strategies through inflationary periods    
What is a sustainable rate of return for a long-term investment?    
Who needs a fund manager?    
How much money do you need to start building wealth?    
Are financial advisers worth the money? What’s the ROI?

Plus a bonus Q and A from David Berthon-Jones CFA


Transcript for talkBIG podcast Season 2 Episode 12: Adapting your financial strategy during high inflation

00:00:20:07 - 00:00:30:03

Andrew Sykes

Well, hello everyone, and welcome to the RSM talkBIG podcast. My name is Andrew Sykes and I'm here in the studio today with my co-hosts, Young Han.

00:00:30:03 - 00:00:30:21

Young Han

Hi everyone.

00:00:30:24 - 00:00:32:05

Andrew Sykes

And Chris Oates.

00:00:32:07 - 00:00:33:04

Chris Oates

G’day everyone.

00:00:33:06 - 00:01:10:04

Andrew Sykes

So inflation, interest rates. Trying to save. It's a tough world out there. So I reckon today's a good day to start talking about how do we adapt and how do we invest in an inflationary environment. We're joined by a very special guest today, David Berthon-Jones. David is the Joint Chief Investment Officer at Aequitas Investment Partners. So David's a long term professional asset manager, consultant and oversees a portfolio worth $3 billion.

00:01:10:05 - 00:01:18:24

Andrew Sykes

That's a lot of dollars. That's a big responsibility. David's going to bring us a bit of his insight. Welcome to our podcast. David.

00:01:19:01 - 00:01:22:03

David Berthon-Jones

Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here.

00:01:22:05 - 00:01:28:08

Andrew Sykes

So $3 billion, that's a lot of money to be overseeing, right? That's quite a responsibility.

00:01:28:10 - 00:01:34:11

David Berthon-Jones

Well, thank you. The numbers, they are large and grow larger over time. Right.

00:01:34:13 - 00:01:53:04

Andrew Sykes

So we're going to have a bit of a talk today on some of those inflationary and investment. And I know you deal with big business you invest for individuals, don't you? Primarily, that's who is the owner of those assets.

00:01:53:06 - 00:02:11:12

David Berthon-Jones

One specific client is dealer groups. And dealer groups tend to own collections of financial planners, and the financial planners have books in terms of end clients. So yes, I suppose there is a pretty straight line or conduit between me and the end investor.

Generating profits through inflation

00:02:11:14 - 00:02:24:19

Andrew Sykes

Excellent. So some of those investors and I think it's what a lot of people want to know now is how can individuals and businesses generate profits during inflationary periods.

00:02:24:21 - 00:02:47:24

David Berthon-Jones

That is a very great question. It's the $64,000 question. I usually tend to talk about what is the standard playbook for what works well in an inflationary environment. And I think it's incumbent to know that we've only had two of them in the past 60 years. They don't tend to come across or along very often, but it's the things that are at the very start of the value chain.

00:02:48:02 - 00:03:15:07

David Berthon-Jones

So things like commodities, raw material inputs at the very start of the value chain that are usually fairly good hedges against the corrosive influence of inflation or assets that can very specifically adjust to inflation, that they have these adjustment mechanisms built into their contracts. So that's things like Treasury inflation protected securities. They go by the acronym TIPS, which you might have heard of.

00:03:15:09 - 00:03:40:11

David Berthon-Jones

And then after those two things, after commodities and TIPS, you've got companies usually listed equities, but ones that have pricing power, ones that are really dominant in their industry and can pass on those costs to the poor old end consumer like you and me ultimately. 

How does inflation impact the composition and allocation of investment portfolios?

And the flipside of those things that you want to gravitate toward, those things that you want to have exposure to, is the stuff you want to avoid.

00:03:40:17 - 00:03:47:21

David Berthon-Jones

And ironically, that's long dated, fixed rate paying assets like bonds.

00:03:47:23 - 00:03:57:07

Andrew Sykes

Yeah. So if you'd invested in all your investments in fixed ten year bonds two or three years ago, you'd be hurting at the moment.

00:03:57:09 - 00:04:21:02

David Berthon-Jones

Yes, you really would. There's some fairly spectacular examples out there, I think, of Austrian bonds that have durations or tenures of about 100 years. That's a quick way to lose a lot of money in an inflationary environment when the original bond was offered with expectations of inflation that were closer to 2% as opposed to 8%.

00:04:21:04 - 00:04:28:08

Andrew Sykes

Okay. But if you could say that same bond that had, say, a six or 7% coupon, that'd be a great investment, would it not?

00:04:28:14 - 00:04:34:19

David Berthon-Jones

Absolutely, yes. That would be assuredly helping you maintain your purchasing power in the current environment.

00:04:34:21 - 00:04:46:19

Andrew Sykes

So as an individual investor, you should be looking for those spikes up in rates to invest and lock it in, but not when it's lower rates. Yeah.

00:04:46:21 - 00:05:08:19

David Berthon-Jones

Yeah, I think that's a very fair way to put things. We've had a tremendous repricing in yields and as yields become more attractive on a forward looking basis, you'd be wanting to take a lot of your exposures to them in a multi-asset portfolio setting. And so for the first time in a long time, cash and shorter dated fixed income securities are offering good value.

00:05:08:19 - 00:05:33:24

David Berthon-Jones

We often talk about shorter dated floating rate investment grade credit where you can get running yields, perhaps not coupons of 6 to 7% without stepping into the high yield subinvestment grade space. But for good quality credits, 5 to 5.5% is quite easy to hit these days. And if you've got a balanced portfolio target, total return of around 6%, you're very much well, almost.

00:05:33:24 - 00:05:40:15

David Berthon-Jones

They're almost home and hosed in assets. The don't have too much underlying risk relative to say equities.

00:05:40:17 - 00:06:00:05

Chris Oates

And in the times of inflation interest rates going up, the short dated bonds, it's important to have your strategy be really flexible. That's the other side of it. So one thing we talk about in financial advice, the actual strategy being flexible, but your investments, you need to be able to move and adapt to the changing environment.

00:06:00:05 - 00:06:01:06

Chris Oates

we look at.

00:06:01:08 - 00:06:25:18

Chris Oates

Interest rates have just had such a sharp rise that you're right. If you had money in cash in term deposits at really low rates, you would have had to wait. So but now you can get those better rate. So you actually win by being flexible over that time. And you see it in portfolios where you can have that active approach, David, that you're able to make the most of this thing as markets do move and the instability that does occur.

What are your thoughts on the RBA lifting interest rates to control inflation?

00:06:25:18 - 00:06:37:19

Young Han

And there is the one thing that's quite off to discuss at the moment is that, you know, obviously increasing their interest rate because they want to manage or control inflation. What's your thoughts on that?

00:06:37:21 - 00:07:10:16

David Berthon-Jones

Oh, it's long overdue. They were way behind the curve. They need to do more. So I am pleased to say that they are eventually now coming to the party and reacting appropriately in their efforts to try and combat inflation by putting the interest rates up. But too little, too late and not enough. And ultimately that has proved to be a form of culpability for them and hence the RBA review and some of the personnel and structural changes that will be inflicted on that venerable institution.

00:07:10:18 - 00:07:32:02

Andrew Sykes

It's a little-- as an amateur and certainly a bystander in all of this... It's quite surprising to me that they couldn't foresee that if you gave everyone a bunch of money with covered stimulus and in an environment of 2% or sometimes even lower interest rates that we were going to have inflation.

00:07:32:04 - 00:08:14:19

David Berthon-Jones

Yes, it's kind of extraordinary in that you think of all of the academic firepower, the institutional firepower that they have, the mathematical fanciness of the models that they used to try and predict, forecast, extrapolate out the economy, things like dynamic, stochastic general equilibrium models, the one that the RBA uses goes by the name of Martin, which I quite like because you can kind of anthropomorphize it, I suppose imbue it with human qualities, but maybe like other regular humans, it has proven to be very infallible, to be very fallible, sorry, not infallible, much to their chagrin.

00:08:14:21 - 00:08:27:08

Andrew Sykes

I agree with you on the name. It could be the best thing about it. I mean, if you met someone and they said, ‘Hi, my name's Martin and I'm an economist’, your parents probably got the name right.

00:08:27:10 - 00:08:54:18

David Berthon-Jones

I like it. But I think just a modicum of common sense with was reasonably helpful here and absolutely with large parts of the economy shut in, keeping incomes whole through transfers, through policy, through fiscal policy was really almost a guarantee that you would see inflationary pressures start to build over time. And so you had to be very quick, you had to be very responsive.

00:08:54:18 - 00:09:18:11

David Berthon-Jones

We were talking about flexibility earlier at the start of the conversation that needed to be there, sticking dogmatically to the three year promise to keep rates low has only created a larger problem down the track. And so sometimes you are faced with two unpleasant choices, but one is worse than the other, and life is all about relative preferences.

00:09:18:17 - 00:09:28:00

David Berthon-Jones

Making choices under uncertainty and making difficult decisions is ostensibly what leadership and business leadership is meant to be all about.

Finding the balance between risk and reward when adjusting portfolios for inflation

00:09:28:02 - 00:10:09:04

Andrew Sykes

Yeah, and that brings up a really good point. If you listen to our podcast, one of our consistent themes is that creating wealth --and wealth being defined as the ability to have decision making power when you want it, not about having a big pot of money-- but creating that wealth is over a long term period. So taking your savings, invest cautiously, take it over a long term period is now one of those periods where you would say, okay, yeah, if we look at the rule of 72, which Chris has explained in one of his podcasts, divide 72 by your return tells you how long you need to double your money.

00:10:09:06 - 00:10:21:09

Andrew Sykes

If we look at 6%, we're going to double our money in 12 years is now one of those times where you say, okay, I'll lock in my longer term fixed returns for us.

00:10:21:09 - 00:10:45:16

David Berthon-Jones

Yes, at the margin. So bearing in mind that we made specifically equities collectively are a multi asset portfolio manager. We've always got exposure to just about some of everything that you can imagine along the financial product spectrum, across the multi assets, across the sub asset classes. And so for us that starting premises, we've got a bit of everything.

00:10:45:22 - 00:11:09:07

David Berthon-Jones

And then in the current environment, what do we gravitate toward more at the margin, what do we sell in order to finance that additional allocation towards whatever it might be? And in this instance, the whatever it might be is the thing that benefits any looking forward and absolute Yes. We think that if we can lock in 6% interest rates comparatively risk free.

00:11:09:12 - 00:11:36:22

David Berthon-Jones

Absolutely. I think you made a comment there about the goal of building wealth so that you have optionality down the track so that you've got the ability to do well within reason. What you want to do in life with your assets in retirement. Well, 6% returns are going to go a very long way to satisfying the vast majority of those prospective obligations and ultimately desires.

00:11:36:24 - 00:12:10:09

Chris Oates

And I think it's the way you mentioned about the long term and being flexible, being able to move in and out of assets. One thing we've looked at for a long time with our investment strategies, having that, I suppose, passive active site approach where what we mean by that is passive basically tracks a general markets. I like index investments, which we've talked about in the past. But also having that component that you can buy and sell investments depending on which sector is going to we think's going to do better or what companies.

00:12:10:11 - 00:12:16:13

Chris Oates

And I think that's a big part of the strategy that a lot of people do put in place.

00:12:16:15 - 00:12:40:21

David Berthon-Jones

Yes, that's right. We tend to use the jargon of one strategic asset allocation profile, which is kind of analogous to that buy and hold set and forget, let the assets run over very long periods of time that will compound your wealth subject to a risk constraint, like keeping the volatility proportionate to X, Y, or Z, whatever it might be, depending on the underlying client's risk appetite.

00:12:40:23 - 00:13:09:00

David Berthon-Jones

And then there's the dynamic asset allocation component and exactly as you said, that is varying that configuration. So it's set up to be the best for right now, whatever the economic opportunities that are presenting themselves across financial markets and some of that dynamic asset allocation distinction relative to strategic asset allocation can be conceptually lost by that passive component.

00:13:09:00 - 00:13:28:12

David Berthon-Jones

We tend to use passive to mean low cost ease of implementation to get exposure to an underlying asset class, but without necessarily taking any particularly nuanced tilt within it. So maybe just definitional concepts, but yes, directionally equivalent, I think.

How much do investors change strategies during inflation?

00:13:28:14 - 00:13:35:16

Young Han

So. Did you have a lot of investors actually wanting to change how they invest because of this inflation?

00:13:35:19 - 00:14:03:12

David Berthon-Jones

Well, our clients, the dealer groups, want us to make as much money as we possibly can, again, subject to those risk constraints and not, for example, taking a balanced portfolio where iconically it might be 60% equities or risky assets and 40% bonds and cash defensive assets, for example, and not suddenly transmogrified that into a portfolio that was 100% risk.

00:14:03:12 - 00:14:42:09

David Berthon-Jones

For example, we've got products that are essentially fit for purpose that range from conservative and they will typically have lower real return targets, lower embedded risk strains embedded in them all the way through to balanced all the way through to higher growth portfolios where really they are about maximize return over a very long period of time, noting the volatility that can come with it where equities love them, but they can vary by upwards of 17% in either direction each year, every year around its mean quite consistently and sometimes by more.

00:14:42:09 - 00:15:25:01

David Berthon-Jones

So when you think of a normal distribution, a three standard deviation event can mean the one stocks fall by 50% in a year. Now fortunately, those periods are very rare across history. We've seen them during the GFC, we saw them most recently during the onset of COVID. But stocks for the long run is is clearly a thing and you can certainly see why, given the underlying equity risk premia are typically so much higher than standard theory would suggest that there's very clearly a

 degree of risk aversion built into all of us, a dislike of uncertainty, a dislike of this idea that dividends can be a lot more volatile than coupons or distributions paid out

00:15:25:01 - 00:15:28:03

David Berthon-Jones

of bond portfolios. For example.

What is a good, sustainable rate of return for a long-term investment?

00:15:28:05 - 00:16:01:06

Andrew Sykes

I said, David, you're a professional asset manager, a fund manager, really interested to get your opinion on this. If we've got a younger person starting off their working life, they're setting up a long term savings plan. Where should they be aiming in terms of investment returns over the long term? So really what I'm asking is, as a professional, what you've seen in your career, what is a good sustainable rate of return?


00:16:01:08 - 00:16:31:08

David Berthon-Jones

I think if you've got a very long time horizon and likely meaningful, steady income that you are employed in, that that's likely to remain the case for a goodly chunk of the decades ahead of you. I think that you should be taking more risk in your investment portfolio, counting on compounding to grow the capital over time. And I think that's what was in Einstein’s Eighth Wonder of the world.

00:16:31:09 - 00:16:59:04

David Berthon-Jones

The impacts of compounding on portfolios and simply turning down the noise, scarcely looking at one's superannuation portfolio over time and not being too worried about 10% drawdowns, for example, not letting that shake you out of your asset allocation and suddenly taking the portfolio that was quite growth and making it defensive and then never rotating back into growth assets when they reprice.

00:16:59:06 - 00:17:41:21

David Berthon-Jones

I definitely think that the younger generation on the assumption that their health is good, their employment prospects are good and they have a long time horizon, they should be willing to embrace a slightly more volatile portfolio areas. And again, counting on that, the idea that volatility typically smooths out over long periods of time. So yes, I think implicit in the premise of your question, you would be looking towards returns anywhere between 7 to 9% nominal for a high growth portfolio over long periods of time from a starting period like today, given where asset classes are trading.

00:17:41:23 - 00:18:07:03

Andrew Sykes

Yeah, and I think that'd be I'd be happy with a long term return somewhere in that range. Knowing as a long term investor that compound interest is just going to work year on year. It's really interesting, people ask me about this as an accountant. They ask me about the share market and my standard response is that's a place where other people make money.

00:18:07:05 - 00:18:17:08

Andrew Sykes

If I buy and direct shares, it never seems to work out. What's the benefit of having a fund manager manage it for you?

What is the benefit of having a fund manager?

00:18:17:10 - 00:18:30:00

David Berthon-Jones

As opposed to just simply allocating to the ASX 200, for example, within Australian equities, just going purely passive, what's the point of the active manager? Is that what you mean or no?

00:18:30:02 - 00:18:36:05

Andrew Sykes

The point is the average investor who does pick a bunch of stocks that I can. Away you go.

00:18:36:07 - 00:19:00:02

David Berthon-Jones

I see what you mean. Yes. The sad fact of the matter exactly as you said really: the share market is full of jocks like me who are here spending every second of every day with our powerful analytics and tools and resources, trying to take that little bit of return away from you and give it to our clients.

00:19:00:04 - 00:19:42:04

David Berthon-Jones

And so the typical retail investor, when they are building their own direct equities allocation, will often be over concentrated. It won't be particularly well diversified, it will often be household names. Whether or not those stocks have good forward looking investment prospects. And again, often the consequence of investing in things that are very familiar to you is usually the idea that those stocks became familiar to you because they have done well and quite possibly therefore are either overvalued or at least in some way, shape or form expensive, and thus have lower ex-ante forward looking returns.

00:19:42:06 - 00:20:08:08

David Berthon-Jones

So we do tend to find that the retail client doing it on their own materially underperformed the professionals. And so unless you have an extraordinarily compelling reason to do it personally, one should absolutely leave it to the professionals. And that's partnerships like Aequitas with RSM, for example.

00:20:08:10 - 00:20:26:13

Young Han

I think it's our side. People often they’re trying to time the market rather than staying in the market and having a fund manager is actually a secondary safeguard for you. If you tend to stress about your portfolio and then have easy access to buy and sell, I think that's quite dangerous.

00:20:26:15 - 00:20:50:16

David Berthon-Jones

So I think that's a really excellent point. I mean, in that case you want barriers to prevent yourself from reflexively responding to fear. And it is very easy to open up one's share trading account and hit the sell order as opposed to necessarily working their managed funds exposures out of the portfolio in concert with their financial advisors.

00:20:50:16 - 00:21:10:13

David Berthon-Jones

So I think I think that's a great point that you make. And if you are a skittish individual, that's a really good observation to keep in mind about how you can improve your own discipline by making it just that little bit harder to unwind something that would, over the long run, be a good idea.

00:21:10:15 - 00:21:34:01

Chris Oates

And it's coming at it from an objective point of view. When it's your money in your bank account, in your share trading account, you become emotional with it. Whereas when you start using a fund manager, they're able to look at it with an asset investment philosophy. Stick to it. If you're going to buy something, there's a whole strategy behind whether you go into it or not.

00:21:34:03 - 00:21:40:08

Andrew Sykes

And I also think it's an extraordinary amount of work. I'd much rather have someone else to do it for me.

When is a good time to start building your wealth through investing?

00:21:40:14 - 00:21:49:16

Young Han

And what so if there are people that, you know, looking to engage a fund manager to manage their portfolio, what's kind of a starting point?

00:21:49:18 - 00:21:54:05

Chris Oates

Come and talk to a financial advisor this that one, as David sort of said, it's the tap.

00:21:54:05 - 00:21:58:01

Young Han

How much is good enough to start a portfolio?

00:21:58:03 - 00:22:17:06

Chris Oates

Well, it's a matter of just starting, as we've mentioned before, starting with something. So you don't necessarily need to go. Here's a big, big lump of money. Investing is for everyone. It's just on a different scale. So somebody might have $100,000 or $1,000,000, but the same person might have $1,000, but it's starting somewhere in that regular investment.

00:22:17:06 - 00:22:28:19

Andrew Sykes

And I couldn't agree with you more. If you want to have $1,000,000 in investable assets, you have to start with the first dollar. So get started and accumulate. Take a long term view.

00:22:28:21 - 00:22:36:14

Young Han

So people always want to have a shortcut and get there faster. Thinking about the margin, what's your view on that?

00:22:36:16 - 00:22:42:14

Chris Oates

Oh, it's risky, but yeah, David's probably got more, more insight into that or.

00:22:42:14 - 00:23:30:18

David Berthon-Jones

A story in any individual strategy or tactic can be fine as long as it's part of a coherent whole that is holistic in its intent. So having exposure to margin loans or for example, a geared Australian share portfolio is absolutely fine as a part of a portfolio, it's not an either or exclusion type event. But if one is taking on deed exposures, well do they have any other offsetting or diversifying trades that can smooth and out the investment experience over time while still producing a higher risk adjusted return?

00:23:30:22 - 00:24:06:07

David Berthon-Jones

So the higher risk adjusted return has a special name, we call it the shot ratio. It's really the holy grail of what we're trying to do or target in funds management. And the idea is that if you can combine in perfectly correlated assets like stocks and bonds, for example, and a geared portfolio might take up some proportion of the equity slave, in that scenario, you'll still find that over time those asset classes working together will produce higher returns with lower units of risk, and that's ultimately what we're trying to do.

00:24:06:07 - 00:24:32:22

David Berthon-Jones

So there's nothing wrong in and of itself with having a margin loan or having a geared approach within one's portfolio. It just depends what else is in there and is it working harmoniously together. And just on this this conversation of minimum starting balances or how much one needs or where should one get started? Well, any amount is fine as long as it's your nest egg that you're trying to grow.

00:24:33:02 - 00:25:02:11

David Berthon-Jones

So dollar amounts are not especially the concern here. There are very small amounts. There are very large balances. It doesn't matter as long as it's yours and you're trying to grow it over time. 

What is the material value of getting financial advice?

But the returns to advice are truly enormous. There's been a whole bunch of studies on this one, but the one that I like is a bit like Martin where the name just sticks in your mind. That is the Kronos study out of retirement in superannuation products in Canada in which they looked at what is the return to the value of advice?

00:25:02:13 - 00:25:34:08

David Berthon-Jones

And it turned out to be about 3% per annum over time, which is extraordinary. We just talked about maybe a target total return for an equities portfolio of being between 7 to 9% and here we're saying that the value of advice is anywhere between a third to 40 to 50% of that total target return just from going and seeing a financial planner who can help you avoid catastrophic mistakes.

00:25:34:10 - 00:26:06:09

David Berthon-Jones

I can think of my own estranged father. He's no longer with us and hasn't been for some time. But I do recall that he basically tried to manage his own wealth himself and during the global financial crises all those years ago sold most of his risky assets and then never went back in. And it did profoundly affect the lifestyle that he was able to enjoy in the years that he had left because of that financial decision.

00:26:06:11 - 00:26:18:24

David Berthon-Jones

And seeking professional assistance would have made an enormous difference. So you can extrapolate, I suppose, from the personal in this instance to the broad in terms of its application.

00:26:19:01 - 00:26:36:01

Andrew Sykes

And that's a really amazing number you've put forward. So if we went back to that rule of 72, if you could get 4% on your own, you're going to double your money in 18 years. If you go seek some advice and get 7%, you're doubling your money in ten years.

00:26:36:03 - 00:26:37:03

David Berthon-Jones


00:26:37:05 - 00:26:40:03

Andrew Sykes

So that compound interest failed.

00:26:40:05 - 00:27:02:16

Andrew Sykes

David, thank you very much for your time today. That's all we've got time for. Thank you, Young and Chris for joining us today. And everybody listening to the RSM talkBIG podcast. Hopefully you found that very interesting. There is a lot of inflation at the moment and it is a big area. RSM has released

00:27:02:16 - 00:27:29:14

Andrew Sykes

the thinkBIG reports are in conjunction with talkBIG. We have the team out there that writes reports. If you go to RSM Dotcom today, you can download the thinkBIG report on inflation and interest rate rises for more in-depth insights and strategies. Once again, thank you for joining in on the RSM talkBIG podcast. Look forward to talking with you on further topics.

00:27:29:16 - 00:27:44:01

Andrew Sykes

You can download us on your favourite and hopefully subscribe on your favourite podcast platform and it'd be great if you could leave us a review as well. Thank you and talk with you next time.

Please note: the information shared on this podcast is of a general nature only and does not take into account the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular person. Before making an investment or trading decision you should consult with your financial adviser & consider how appropriate the advice (if any) is to your objectives, financial situation and needs.    
For expert financial advice tailored to your personal situation, please reach out to one of our wealth management specialists.    


Bonus Q and A from David-Berthon Jones

How can individuals and businesses generate profits during an inflationary period?

A: Usually, the “standard” playbook for what works well in an inflationary environment, noting that we’ve only had 2 of them in 60 years, are things at the very start of the value chain, like commodities, or things that can specifically adjust to inflation, like treasury inflation protected securities, called TIPS. 

After that, you have companies with pricing power, ones that are dominant in their industry and can pass on cost to consumers. Usually, you will want to avoid longer dated, fixed rate paying assets like bonds. 

A: Yes, often the non-discretionary sectors like consumer staples, healthcare, insurance, to a lesser extent telecommunications, have done well in inflationary episodes, stuff that you can’t really cut back on, as a share of wallet. 

But it does depend on the nature of the shock; where or why is the inflation coming from? If it is a supply shock, which industries does the shock fall most heavily on. For example, a fire in a Japanese semiconductor manufacturer meant a huge shortfall in the supply of cars, and so the automotive industry, normally a cyclical, discretionary purchase, was a huge contributor and beneficiary of inflation. 

A: The good news here is that high inflation often comes with low unemployment, so the odds are that you have a job, and probably some modest bargaining power from your employer, and in this current period, low income earners have been the most in demand, if you were looking for a cohort that has benefited from inflation it would be the material real wages gains seen there.

The “balance part”, that word in the question is important. Property, a “real” rather than “financial” asset, can be a good hedge against inflation risks, but, in a country like Australia you just have to mindful that we are not like the US, which has 30 year fixed rate mortgages, but rather predominantly variable rate mortgages, which will absolutely reprice, as we have seen over the past 18 months or so.

How does inflation change your approach to managing investment portfolios?

imilar to earlier, a bit more floating rate credit, a bit less long duration government bonds, a bit more equities centred on businesses that we think have pricing power, a bit more commodities, a bit more gold. For example, we bought quite a bit of NCM mining, predicated on the impacts of inflation on the demand for gold.

Central banks react to inflation, so when inflation comes the rates go up. Finding sectors that are “rates beneficiaries” is often a reasonable approach, sectors like insurance, for example, usually see gross written premiums go up, which is good for the top line, and the returns to float on their short duration fixed income book, the running yield, go up, which is also a key driver of profitability. 

Yes in residential property, not quite so much in multi-asset portfolios, like your superannuation. Equity allocations seem to have dropped, at the margin, and many fund managers are now trying to position for an eventual downturn, which is quite possible since monetary policy has become so tight. Positioning for a downturn does mean utilising treasury bonds, and some duration, as such you’ve not actually seen people overhauling investment portfolios in their entirety. Plus, most people, ourselves included, expect inflation to return to trend over time. Partly, the worry is that it overshoots, and we have a recession. 

It is crushing self-reported sentiment, in that we have these surveys of consumer confidence, which are just rock bottom-in-the-toilet type measures, at the moment. People hate inflation, and that is affecting how they answer the survey. 

Mind you, their answers are usually something like “I’m doing fine, but everything else sucks”. 

A: There is expected inflation, which is priced into assets on a forward looking basis, and ex post, the realised or actual. And they impact you in different ways. Every business and personal loan written from say 2017-2021 had a very low inflation amount incorporated into it, for expected inflation, which people thought would average about 2% over 10 years. Since the actual inflation turned out to be much higher, every one of those loans would be underwater. 


You have some banks in the US where the loan book that they own is yielding about 3%, whilst they pay deposit holders 5%, leaving them with a negative net interest margin. That’s pretty deadly for profitability. 

The general idea of “your money goes less far” in terms of purchasing goods and services, that’s the corrosive part of inflation, and can make it very hard to keep ahead.

A: Yes, just not in the way that you think. It’s not that cash is king, in and of itself. It’s that when inflation surprises everyone, to the upside, those assets reprice lower, and so whilst cash is indeed usually losing out relative to inflation, the real returns are negative, they are often much less negative than what is happening in the other asset classes. 

What is the connection between inflation and interest rates?


Sure. Very simply, the central bank wants low and stable inflation, because it believes that inflation is a sign of an overheated economy. It has models, in which when you draw out the little diagrams of aggregate demand, and aggregate supply, and “shock them”, which literally means shifting them around on paper, it turns out by almost a divine coincidence that keeping the price level stable to target is the best way to maximise employment and, to a lesser degree financial stability. So, when inflation moves, so do the rates.

It’s the rate that starts everything off. The rate than banks borrow and lend to each other overnight for unsecured loans. It is the reference rate to which other economic agents start adding things to. 

Higher amounts for lending money out longer. Higher rates for taking on different degrees of credit risk. You’ve gotta start somewhere, and it all begins with the cash rate, and the central bank, that sets this rate, which is the very first building block for all other rates. 

Normally, a central bank can announce a change in the cash rate, and see it percolate through all of those other rates. But, it might feel that changing the cash rate, by buying and selling short dated treasury bills, is insufficient. Perhaps it feels that mortgage rates are too high, or corporate bond rates are too high, and so it adds those securities to its purchasing decisions. Buying up those bonds puts downwards pressure on their yields, which are the borrowing costs.

A: The RBA, into the crisis, pinned yields via yield curve control, promising everyone that rates would remain low (to help stimulate consumption and investment and ultimately people’s financial decisions). 

Now, they made a promise that they couldn’t keep. Vaccines came along quite quickly, and the economy was able to reopen, and begin to function as normal, very early into their “rates will be low for years” promise. And as inflation began to bite that promise began to look very wobbly, unreliable. Sure enough, about 18 months ahead of schedule, the RBA unwound that bond program, and yields surged.

A: That one is pretty straightforward. You can make borrowing costs so high that cyclical, leveraged sectors like housing fall over. Activity there slows, firms layoff workers, those workers who are now out of work lower their consumption, and firms in the affected sectors begin to layoff workers too. And so it spreads.

How do you adapt your household budget when the cost of living is so high?

A: Well, we begin to get away from what I’m good at here. But substitution, switching to goods where relative prices are lower, is a good idea. If bananas went through the roof, switch to blueberries. If petrol is very expensive, AND you are able to do so, take the bus. 

If you are worried about mortgage repayments, as you search for a home to buy, perhaps reset the sights a little lower than you might have originally envisioned. 

A: For a fund manager, the most capitalistic of industries, I’m quite left leaning. I have two sayings that live side by side in my head, firstly, “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”. 

And then the famous Adam Smith quote “It is not from the benevolence of the baker that we expect our bread, but rather from their self interest”. 

So, usually when households are struggling, I want the government to help. But in this particular example, I’m against a lot of the recent initiatives. On the energy subsidies, well high oil prices, high electricity prices are a signal to cut back on low value use cases, and to increase supply of those things. To subsidise the demand for them robs you of the meaning of the price signal. It is the same with housing subsidies, first home buyer grants. We have a supply issue, we want to prioritise supply. That means taking note of the pricing signal, and changing zoning laws, preventing NIMBY-ism, providing tax incentives to property developers, not bolstering demanding, which is already too high.

What business strategies help deal with a high inflation economy?


A: I guess the whole point here is that it is hard. Domino’s Pizza, rather famously now, tried to offset inflation by putting up prices, delivery fees, on a product (pizza) known for being “good value, cheap”, and when they did that new pricing strategy, it fell very flat. Consumers did not want to pay more for their pizza. 

The key is to know your customer, your pricing point that appeals to them, whether you have the balance of power, for a non substitutable non discretionary item, AND, to have visibility of cost inputs across your business. 

Some of the building material companies, over the past year, found that costs were rising far quicker than they could easily keep track of, when trying to make pricing decisions, when providing quotes on jobs that they wouldn’t completely until 12 months time, and suffered enormous margin squeezes. That’s an argument for investing in good quality enterprise resource planning software, if nothing else. 

A: Well, we talked earlier about needing a bit of luck to be in the right sector and the right time. Being a car dealership, with lots of inventory, coming out the pandemic was probably tremendously fortuitous. 

But there are absolutely some generic strategies. Terming out your debt, avoiding big bullet maturities, ensuring you don’t have a big asset liability mismatch is something a lot of companies, specifically, their finance departments, could learn from. Every bank watching Silicon Valley bank, or Signature Bank, First Republic, would have something to learn there about the consequences of big interest rate bets across the book. 

A: Automation is usually the key. Reducing dependence on needing to find staff, especially agency or contractors, quickly at a moments notice. This can be very simple, swapping your restaurant ordering system from one of a human waiter taking orders at every table to an ipad mounted to the table with a floating “concierge” staffer is a very easy one. 

Having supply chain redundancies, multiple service providers, is usually another. Investing in decent chatbots, as per the new openAI ChatGPT to handle your online order enquiries, is another very simple, cost effective strategy. You’ve seen the big banks, telecos and insurance companies use these for years, and they’ve been powerful drivers of productivity and cost out, that will now spread to other sectors.

Yes, if you are writing loans, build in a bigger inflation premium!

Discuss the importance of forecasting and scenario planning for businesses operating in a high inflation economy and how they can proactively adapt their strategies.

A: Big diversified businesses like conglomerates, like Berkshire Hathaway, in the US, or, to a lesser extent, a company like Wesfarmers, here in Australia, have some protection against inflation because they own lots of different types of companies, in different sectors, which diversify’s away some of the risk of being 100% stuck in an industry that is being hurt by inflation. 

The problem to a fund manager, though, is that that kind of business model isn’t usually all that attractive. There is such a thing as the holding company discount, because normally a fund manager can replicate the exposures through pure play stocks. Normally you don’t want to dilute your positive view, whatever it might be, by investing in a diversified company. For example, say you are positive on home renovations and restorations, so you like the bunnings business, but aren’t all that positive on consumer discretionary items, like that which you’d get at Big W or Target. Well, then Wesfarmers, which owns all of those companies, isn’t going to be especially ideal.

A: In a higher interest rate, higher inflation world, we are seeing a number of companies trying to share infrastructure, to deliver better service propositions to customers, but, unfortunately we are seeing many instances of this being blocked. Telstra and TPG want to share their networks, in TLS case opening up the regional network to TPG, and for TPG to share their unused spectrum with TLS, but the regulator intervening. This is madness, in our view, both have underutilised assets, could gain from trade, have made it clear it is about the customer and efficiency, and regulation gets in the way.

Pathology is another one, where scale is absolutely everything to keeping unit costs lows, and the recent attempted tie up between Helius and ACL (Australian Clinical Laboratories) is, in our view, being blocked by those with an eye towards self interest. 

A: Productivity is the great antidote to inflation. You can pay people higher wages, and still see your unit costs fall, which directly lowers inflation, if you can do more with less. The easy one is moving away from fossil fuel dependency, where appropriate. Solar panels on your warehouse roof, heat pumps in the home, insulation so you can turn down the thermostat, work from home if your job permits, these are all great productivity and cost control items. 

Finding good financial advice, at very treasonable prices, like the good folks at RSM, as an inflation beater, seems good to me!