Profit during inflation? These 5 tips could help investors beat rising prices

Inflation has investors worried, but there are some key steps they can take as the economic picture continues to evolve.

  • From stocks and bonds to gold and real estate, inflation can affect them all.
  • Here are some factors to consider for investors who want to take advantage of those opportunities.

For consumers, inflation is raising jitters and for good reason— rising prices could wipe out gains or stall the nation's economic growth.

Thursday's Consumer Price Index report showed inflation at a 40-year high, but the warning signs have been there. Americans say being able to afford to pay their bills and inflation rank second and third, respectively, in a Monmouth University study. The coronavirus pandemic was first.

What’s an investor to do during inflation? For starters, don’t panic. Take sensible actions to manage your money and add peace of mind as the economic picture continues to evolve.

►Latest CPI report:Inflation reaches a 40-year high with prices up 7.5% in last year

Here are five steps to allow you to sleep better:

1. Focus on stocks and max out your 401k

If there’s one thing many financial managers agree on, it’s that stocks are far better in inflationary cycles than bonds. Over the decades, stocks have returned an average of about 10%, which becomes 6% to 8% when inflation is taken into account.

Maxing out your 401k, which also may come with a company match, is a great way to take advantage of stocks on the money you won’t need until retirement.

Here's why stocks do better in times like these:

Companies can continue to innovate and are often in industries that can pass on rising costs to consumers. Nobody likes higher prices, but folks are likely to be willing to swallow them. Thus, stock prices still can rise. For the cautious, focus on companies that make consumer staples, like toilet paper or dishwasher detergent, that will profit in good times and bad.

With inflation in the U.S. at a 30-year high, investors are looking for ways to profit.

Bonds are having a tough time after years of solid returns. They are sold at fixed rates that can leave them at a disadvantage as they are outpaced by inflation. Bond funds, especially those with shorter average maturity durations, can take some of the edge off the pain.

►What is causing inflation?:The reasons and solutions are complicated

2. Consider alternative investments

Real estate has been a traditional winner during an inflationary period. If one holds on to a property in many cities, there’s a good chance its value will keep up with or outpace inflation.

The verdict is mixed, but some believe gold will do well in recessions. It has been viewed as a haven of safety, too, when fear grips the stock market. 

A surer bet is the Treasury Department's I Bond, a savings bond with a rate tied to inflation that is currently paying 7.12%. The rate easily outpaces interest checking accounts or money-market accounts. You can buy up to $10,000 worth of I Bonds per calendar year.

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One of the few sectors that thrived during the COVID-19 pandemic was real estate. Existing home sales in 2020 hit their highest level in nearly a decade and a half -- and surging demand pushed real estate prices higher. The median home sale reached a multi-decade high of $278,000 in the first quarter of 2021, […]

3. Ask for a pay raise at work

Aside from your investments, consider income from your job. With 1.5 open jobs for every unemployed American,  employers are raising wages to try to lure workers. New hires at your company may be offered higher wages than you. So weigh asking for a pay raise. The boss can always say no. At very least, your polite request may underscore that the firm needs to keep its salaries on pace with the market.

Social security recipients are receiving their biggest cost of living adjustment in 40 years in 2022 due to inflation. Working people surely believe they deserve a boost, too.

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4. Don’t pay off low-interest loans early

Many responsible savers have an impulse to pay off loans early to remain as debt-free as possible. Certainly, that’s good advice when it comes to high-interest credit card debt. But look carefully at your interest rates: inflation may be higher than the rates on certain debt, in which case you should resist the urge to dispose of the debt early.

Received one of those zero or 1% car loans? Make the payments on time — and no more.

Student loan debt? Many graduates leave college with a huge burden, but often one with a low, fixed interest rate. Again, the goal should be to make payments on time, without becoming delinquent, but not trying to pay it off early as long as the inflation stays ahead of it.

►The Great Resignation:'Stressed and worn thin' workers seek more fulfilling jobs, better work-life balance amid COVID-19

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said in late November that the appearance of a new coronavirus variant could slow the economy and hiring, while also raising uncertainty about inflation.

5. Remember it's a long haul

Many dedicated savers may feverishly try to rejigger their portfolios to deal with inflation, which is understandable. But there are good arguments for sticking by your balance of stocks, bonds and other investments.

For most, a nest egg is set aside for big goals like new homes or for retirement. Many are wiling to sacrifice higher returns for the sake of lower volatility. Unless you’re the kind of saver who does the homework and is laser-focused on the twists and turns of the markets – a day trader or someone who thinks they can outsmart the indexes – it makes sense to stand by your mix.

The old adage holds true for the average investor: you can't time the market. One never knows when the market will turn or in this case, when inflation will ease. Financial instruments held over many years and decades almost always end up with a positive return.

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Contributing: Paul Davidson