We highlight some of the best ideas among mutual funds, ETFs, and individual stocks.
By Christine Benz | 02-21-11 | 06:00 AM | Email Article

Are higher prices on the way? Or are they here already?

The answer is yes and yes, according to Morningstar.com users, who recently shared their own inflationary woes. And the statisticians are pointing to higher inflation, too, with the Labor Department recently reporting that January marked the second straight month in which the Consumer Price Index had ticked up.

Christine Benz is Morningstar's director of personal finance and author of 30-Minute Money Solutions: A Step-by-Step Guide to Managing Your Finances and the Morningstar Guide to Mutual Funds: 5-Star Strategies for Success. Follow Christine on Twitter: @christine_benz.

Higher food and gas prices can be a problem for people from a quality-of-life standpoint, and they also spell trouble for investors. By the time you start tapping your portfolio to meet your income needs, those dollars you've managed to save could be worth a lot more than they are right now.

That's why it's so important to ensure that your portfolio is adequately protected against inflation. Some inflation-fighting vehicles have explicit protection against rising prices, such as Treasury Inflation-Protected Securities. Others, such as stocks, protect against inflation indirectly.

Here's an overview of the key vehicles with inflation-fighting attributes as well as some of Morningstar's top picks within those groups.

Inflation-Protected Bonds
The Thesis
For holders of nominal (that is, not inflation-protected) bonds, inflation is a natural enemy, right up there with rising interest rates. If an investment is delivering a fixed payout, inflation will reduce the value of that payout accordingly. That's where inflation-protected bonds come into play. There are two main varieties: I-Bonds and inflation-protected bonds. The former are bonds for individual investors issued by the Treasury Department; their yields adjust upward to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index. (This article provides more color on I-Bonds.) Inflation-protected bonds, such as TIPS, are similar, but the inflation adjustment comes at the principal level, not in the bond's yield.

Best Bets
There are no funds composed of I-Bonds, but there are a number of offerings that focus on inflation-protected bonds. For plain-vanilla TIPS exposure, it's tough to beat the low-cost  Vanguard Inflation-Protected Securities ; for ETF enthusiasts,  iShares Barclays TIPS Bond  is another low-cost, no-nonsense choice. The PIMCO-managed  Harbor Real Return , meanwhile, has successfully employed a broader toolkit that encompasses non-U.S. inflation-protected bonds and the use of forward contracts to obtain TIPS exposure. While  SPDR DB International Government Inflation-Protected Bond  isn't an official  ETF Analyst Pick, it provides both inflation protection and diversification away from the U.S. dollar. Bear in mind, however, that when articles about inflation are splashed across every newspaper and financial website, TIPS can get expensive, and that could be the case right now, too. (For a little color on this issue, check out my colleague Eric Jacobson's article.) Given that TIPS would also be susceptible in a rising-rate environment, anyone building a position in them right now should tiptoe during a period of months rather than adding to their holdings right now.

Bank Loans
The Thesis
Unlike inflation-protected bonds, bank loans don't include an explicit mechanism to ward against inflation. But they stand to be fairly hardy when inflation is on the move. That's because bank-loan payouts fluctuate in line with the London Interbank Offered Rate--the rate that banks charge one another to borrow money. When the LIBOR heads up, which is often the case during inflationary environments, so do bank-loan coupon payments.

Best Bets
Bank-loan funds might seem to have everything you need for the current economic environment: imperviousness to rising interest rates plus some inflation-fighting characteristics. But investors should tread with caution in this varied category. Due to credit sensitivity and forced bank-loan selling from institutional investors, the average bank-loan fund lost a shocking 29% in 2008. Morningstar's favorite fund here is one of the group's slow and steady options,  Fidelity Floating Rate High Income , where manager Christine McConnell assiduously avoids the market's riskiest loans. As with TIPS, think about dribbling money slowly into this category during a period of a few months rather than moving it in all at once. 

Commodities/Metals Funds
The Thesis
The premise behind owning commodities investments for inflation protection is straightforward: If the prices of goods are going up, an investment that captures price changes in food, energy, and basic-materials costs will thrive at the same time.

Best Bets
Although the case for commodities for inflation protection is straightforward, the implementation isn't. Owning the stocks of commodities companies, as with an offering like  T. Rowe Price New Era , provides indirect exposure to the prices of stuff. And while commodities futures-based funds aim to provide broad, and direct, exposure to the prices of goods, in practice they haven't been perfect trackers of commodity prices as a result of a situation called contango. (Read this article for a discussion of the pros and cons of these investments.) The PIMCO-managed  Harbor Commodity Real Return  is Morningstar's sole  open-end Fund Analyst Pick within the commodities category. Our exchange-traded fund team, meanwhile, has  a few commodities picks, including  iPath DJ-UBS Commodity Index . At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this is another good category for dollar-cost-averaging.

The Thesis
Stocks are another indirect way to gird your portfolio against the threat of inflation. Their returns are variable, in contrast with fixed-rate investments, giving them the potential for higher returns than bonds. That means that inflation could take a smaller bite, in percentage terms, out of your future purchasing power.

Best Bets
Not all stocks will thrive in an inflationary environment, and some companies may even see their profitability flag. To help identify companies with a strong history of profitability through a variety of economic environments, screening for firms with high returns on equity is a good starting point. Morningstar's preset  Wealth Creators screen can help you identify such firms, and layering on an additional screen for wide moats will further winnow down the universe to companies with long-term competitive advantages. Fund investors have a few top options, including  Vanguard Dividend Growth  and  T. Rowe Price Dividend Growth  (traditional actively managed funds) and the index fund Vanguard Dividend Appreciation (available as a conventional  mutual fund  and  ETF ). 

A version of this article appeared on Dec. 9, 2010.

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Christine Benz does not own shares in any of the securities mentioned above. Find out about Morningstar's editorial policies.
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