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Market View

Moderate inflation has benefited price-to-earnings ratios.

While concerns about inflation have flared up periodically over the past five years, pricing pressures, nevertheless, have remained generally quiescent. But in recent months, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) has edged up, leading some observers to comment that the much-feared surge in inflation is finally here.

The CPI hit 2.1% in June, matching the reading for May and ticking up 0.1 percentage point from April, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. In May and June, much of the price rise was driven by higher food and fuel prices, so the core CPI, which excludes those items, has risen slightly less. It rose by only 1.9% in June, down 0.1 percentage point from May, but nevertheless higher than any previous month in 2014.

The Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation—the personal consumption expenditures’ price index—has been less active. It rose only 1.3% in the first quarter, and that was down from 1.5% in the fourth quarter of 2013. Excluding food and energy, as the Fed prefers to do, this core measure rose 1.3% in the first quarter, down 0.5 percentage point from fourth quarter 2013.

If core inflation were heating up more quickly, then the Fed might be expected to raise interest rates soon. But this relatively benign pace of inflation suggests that monetary policy could remain accommodative for quite a while. So, core CPI could soon edge above 2.0%, even as the Fed’s preferred measure stays well below the Fed’s 2.0% target. And there is little doubt that pricing pressures will pick up. In fact, inflation expectations, as measured by five-year CPI swaps, are running at 2.4%.

The effect of inflation on fixed-income prices is widely known, but what about stocks? It appears from Chart 1 that the effect is mixed, with extremely low and extremely high rates being less conducive to high stock valuations than moderate rates. Over the more than three decades from March 31, 1982, to June 30, 2014, forward price-to-earnings [P/E] ratios have been highest, 17.5,  when the annual core CPI was between 2% and 3%. Given that the forward P/E on the S&P 500® Index was 15.9 (as of July 24, 2014), stock valuations may have a little more room to expand if core inflation continues to rise.

 

Chart 1. Stock Valuations Have Been Highest When Inflation Is Moderate
Average forward price-to-earnings ratios on the S&P 500 Index, 3/31/1982–6/3/2014



Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, FactSet, and Bloomberg.
*As of 7/24/14.
Note: P/E by Core CPI calculated quarterly, data are as of 6/30/14.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
The historical data are for illustrative purposes only, do not represent the performance of any Lord Abbett mutual fund or any particular investment, and are not intended to predict or depict future results. Indexes are unmanaged, do not reflect the deduction of fees or expenses, and are not available for direct investment. Performance during other time periods may be different or negative. Investors may experience different results. Due to market volatility, the market may not perform in a similar manner in the future. Please refer to "Important Information" regarding the economic indicator data in these charts and index information. 

 

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