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Blast from the past: Are we watching the return of 1970s-style stagflation?

How worried should investors be about the risk of stagflation? Portfolio Manager Nick Petrucelli offers his take, digging into previous occurrences for clues about the causes that may be most relevant today and outlining the potential outcomes and capital market implications.

The views expressed are those of the author at the time of writing. Other teams may hold different views and make different investment decisions. The value of your investment may become worth more or less than at the time of original investment. While any third-party data used is considered reliable, its accuracy is not guaranteed. For professional, institutional, or accredited investors only.

KEY POINTS

  • Historically, stagflation periods haven’t been uncommon, but they typically occur for short periods toward the end of the cycle, when capacity limits have been hit and higher prices are solved via demand destruction.
  • The current period reflects many aspects of prior stagflation episodes. For a sustained stagflation episode to evolve, we would likely need to see continued wage increases to support demand and no strong improvement on the supply side of the economy.
  • While a return to the extremes of 1970s stagflation appears unlikely in the near term, a worsening in the growth/inflation trade-off does seem likely. This would have important capital market implications, as it would be a very different environment from the secular stagnation decade we just lived through.

The topic of stagflation has come front and center for investors as supply-chain issues have persisted longer than expected and collided with unusually aggressive expansionary policy. This has pushed core inflation well above the 20-year range, even as GDP growth and many leading indicators have weakened in recent months. Rising wage growth and spikes in energy prices have poured fuel on the fire, leading to comparisons with the 1970s, a particularly poor environment for real investment returns.

In this paper, I consider the causes of stagflation and what we can learn from previous occurrences, assess the risk of a prolonged period of stagflation today, and outline the potential capital market implications.

Our framework for understanding stagflation

Stagflation, which for purposes of this paper I will define as a combination of weakening real growth and rising/high inflation, typically occurs when demand is greater than supply at current prices and supply is unable to grow quickly to meet that demand. Excessive stimulus or money supply increases can be a driver, especially if the output gap (the difference between actual and potential output) is closed so that there is no excess capacity to raise supply and meet the increased demand, forcing prices to rise and ultimately destroy demand.

This process can be prolonged if it is met with additional increases in money supply and nominal incomes, which would at least temporarily preserve demand until prices rise further (assuming capacity doesn’t increase). If, on the other hand, there are no further increases in money supply and nominal incomes, the demand destruction would likely slow economic growth, perhaps to recession levels if negative feedback loops ensue or financial conditions are tightened to combat the inflation.

A second possible cause of stagflation is a shift down in the supply curve of the economy caused by an exogenous shock, such as the OPEC embargo or a currency crisis (which would cause the cost of imported goods to increase with no increase in demand). The severity and persistence of the shock, along with the policy response, will tend to determine whether the result is a short bout of inflation followed by a slowdown or recession, or a longer-lasting stagflationary period in which…

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