Investment in an inflationary environment

Investing in an inflationary environment is new to me in practical, but not theoretical, terms. It has been obvious for over a year now that this current inflation was emerging. But it hasn’t made the practical decisions of how to invest any easier. The last time the world’s major economies experienced significant inflation was at the end of the 1980s. I didn’t have any money to invest back then, so my understanding was theoretical, not practical. I read about it. Fast forward 30 years, I’m now living on the success or otherwise of my investment decisions in what is turning out to be an inflationary environment. At the beginning of 2021, I made my views clear in public professional circles that inflation was emerging as a looming threat. Many didn’t believe me. But we all have to deal with it now.

So, how to invest?

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Budget ‘winners and losers’ according to the Australian Financial Review

It’s Budget night in Australia. The press used to report “beer up, cigs up” as excises were raised on those products. But the Financial Review was meant to be more adult, more thoughtful, more nuanced, more educated and less tabloid in its reporting. Until now.

The Government has announced a cut in the petrol excise duty. What has the Fin described this as? “Electric vehicle buyers are losers in tonight’s budget because they won’t benefit from the cut in the petrol excise. “

FFS, as they say in the classics.

Cognitive dissonance triggers in the business news

I know that cognitive dissonance can stress some people so apologies in advance if these stories from today’s business news in Australia give you the jitters. But many people, like me, will find them funny and get a good old-fashioned guffaw out of them. Or at least a smirk.

First, to corporate finance. A senior executive from the RBA, Australia’s central bank, gave a speech yesterday. That in itself is enough to prime most people for a laugh, given that many utterings from RBA senior executives are laughable. He said that Australia risked climate conscious global investors divesting from Australian business for greener opportunities. This is being referred to as a potential capital strike. I understand that he made these comments as a warning to Australian business for not being sufficiently green. But on the same page of the newspaper, a different report quoted the CEO of a major coal mining company saying the company is enjoying massive demand for its coal. That high demand, particularly in conjunction with rising prices, is creating booming revenue. Further, he said that with little increase in production of coal (globally) in recent years, this boom could last many years. In a previous post I mentioned that corporate finance options would evolve as traditional sources of finance were becoming, as the RBA man said, “climate conscious”. Sure enough, the coal executive explained how new sources of overseas capital are opening up, with particular emphasis on the likely long term funding from Asian debt capital markets to invest in and expand production capacity. I think the RBA chap should get out and about more.

Secondly, we turn to the current thorny issue of mandatory COVID vaccines for employees. Two of Australia’s four big banks were reported to have disclosed their policies. Westpac has introduced a compulsory jab policy. This was after it had surveyed its staff and found 91% were already fully or on their way to full vaccination status. According to the bank, the survey proved that the staff were supportive of this new policy which would keep everyone safe. Meanwhile, the ANZ bank also reported that it had surveyed its staff and it too found 91% on their way to full vaccination status. According to the bank, this showed a compulsory jab policy was not needed and it had no intentions of introducing one. So there you have it – how to interpret a survey result of 91% in two totally different ways. 

The continuing evolution of corporate finance

Australia's major banks have signalled their intention to stop financing businesses that they, the banks, see as problematic for climate change. These are resources businesses in projects related to fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas. During proceedings in a Parliamentary Committee hearing last week, the committee heard evidence that such businesses were increasingly turning to private equity and foreign sources of finance.

I think this trend will accelerate. Public companies, particularly the big retail banks in Australia, have seen their shareholder registers evolve over recent decades. The number of shareholders has increased, the average age of shareholders has reduced and the average shareownership value has reduced. Further, Australian superannuation funds have vast numbers of members that are willing to look through the investment portfolios of their fund to see where the investments are actually being made. Shareholders have become more diverse and, inevitably, many have organised themselves into shareholder activist groups. They put pressure on boards via various means to abandon fossil fuel investments.

Most of the directors and senior executives of public companies and the superannuation funds appear to be frightened of shareholder activist groups. It is hard think of any other reason for those entities to denounce fossil fuel projects as a class of investment.  Investment decisions ought to be made on a case by case basis. To impose a ban on financing a certain class of investment is not operating case by case. It is operating according to a bias.  I have no sympathies for corporate leaders who are scared of the prospect of a twitter storm or other noisy attention. The need to appear virtuous has superseded all other investment objectives if whole classes of projects are simply put off limits. That is weak, and possibly in breach of their duties. When you see a corporate entity claiming sustainability virtue points by selling off their coal investments, you see duplicity in action: selling a coal investment to another party is simply taking all future profits now in one net present value lump sum. If those companies genuinely believed the coal project in question should not exist, then it should be shut, dismantled and cleaned up. It should not be sold as a going concern.

Meanwhile, private equity executives do not need to even consider the issue of shareholder activists. They don't exist in the business model. They can make financing decisions based on a project's merits. In some respects, that is closer to how publicly listed banks used to finance business before the revolution in the shareholder base. I anticipate the on-going evolution of financing options. To be sure, the objectives of private equity are different from those of the high street banks but the end result will be the same: worthwhile projects will get their finances arranged. The projects will continue. While the public banks will withdraw, other financiers will step in. The activists will eventually realise that the game moved on while they thought they were winning.