What if you could tame long-term inflation? Right now, this is one of the biggest questions in financial circles. After nearly 40 years of very stable money, in 2021 and 2022 prices surged. For the first time in a generation, inflation seriously beat the Federal Reserve’s 2% benchmark.
As of July 2023, this immediate problem appears to be easing somewhat. But investors as a group are understandably spooked. Was last summer’s 9% inflation rate a one-shot problem brought on by the unique conditions of a pandemic economy, massive federal spending and a destabilizing war? Or will inflation return as a cyclical issue?
Consider working with a financial advisor to build an investment portfolio that accounts for inflation.
Financial advisor and author Allan Roth of ETF.com thinks that investors would be wise to prepare in case inflation remains high, or even surges back to 2022 levels. This is a particular risk, he warns, for retirees without the luxury of new wages that keep pace with higher prices.
What if, he writes, inflation averages 5% during your retirement? Over the course of 20 years, a retiree who started out withdrawing $4,000 per year from a given account would need to increase those withdrawals to $10,613 just to keep up with prices. This could easily shatter carefully planned finances.
To fix this, Roth writes, “I built and purchased a 30-year TIPS ladder with roughly $1 million of my own money… By buying as close as possible to bonds maturing each year, I was able to create a 30-year cash flow paying me an inflation-adjusted average of $43,800, or 4.38% annually.”
In other words, by building a TIPS ladder fund, Roth argues that he has added a stable source of inflation-protected income to his retirement fund. A TIPS ladder fund could help investors hedge against both market risks and inflation. While not explicitly a “growth” strategy, it could be a very strong security-oriented strategy for retirees. Here’s how it works.
How a TIPS Ladder Fund Works
A ladder fund is a portfolio of maturing assets, like bonds or CDs, built around staggered maturity dates. For example, you might buy a portfolio with bonds that mature in 5, 10, 15 and 20 years. This fund would “ladder,” as the bonds would mature in stages like the rungs of a ladder, as opposed to all at once.
The idea behind a ladder fund is to hedge against timing risk. For example, say you had invested in bonds in 2019, when rates were extremely low. A portfolio of long-term assets might be stuck with low-value, low-yield assets. A ladder fund, on the other hand, would have short-term bonds. As those assets mature, you could collect back your principal and invest in new, higher-interest assets.
A TIPS bond, or Treasury Inflation Protected Security, is a marketable Treasury asset built to correct for inflation. Each month the Treasury adjusts the underlying principal on all TIPS bonds based on the Consumer Price Index. When the bond matures, the holder receives the greater of either the bond’s original value or its inflation-adjusted value. Since the bond calculates interest based on its underlying principal, this means that the asset’s periodic interest payments will also increase based on inflation.
A TIPS ladder fund, as suggested by Roth, is a portfolio built out of TIPS bonds with staggered maturity dates. This, he argues, would provide a source of inflation-protected income, due to the structure of a TIPS bond, while also giving investors a hedge against market timing risks due to the periodic maturity of the ladder.
Can TIPS Ladders Protect Your Money From Inflation?
While a niche and technical idea, the TIPS ladder fund has been well received. Morningstar’s John Rekenthaler writes that it can potentially offer investors a strong supplement to more traditional assets like stocks and annuities.
“TIPS ladders take the concept of bond ladders a giant leap further,” Rekenthaler writes. “Whereas traditional ladders merely reduce investment risk, TIPS ladders eliminate the possibility entirely. In that they are unique. Conventional Treasuries face no conceivable credit risk, but they certainly court inflation risk… In contrast, every inflation-adjusted penny from a TIPS ladder is known in advance.”
Thanks to the combination of bond interest payments and inflation adjustment, you can know exactly what this portfolio will pay out for its entire lifetime. Thanks to its nature as a government asset, you can know that this portfolio will not default. That’s about as much security as anyone can ask for.
Does this mean that TIPS ladders will be an investor’s forever home? Not entirely, as there are two main catches to this portfolio. First, a TIPS ladder is difficult and expensive to construct, with relatively marginal yields on low-value transactions. As a result, most retail investors won’t have the skill set or capital to build a useful TIPS ladder on their own.
This is why both Rekenthaler and Roth recommend an ETF that offers this structure. A large-scale fund, built and managed by professional investors, could solve both the complexity and the funding problems. Retail investors could buy in using the flexibility of the ETF structure, making this far more practical for them.
Second, a TIPS ladder still offers government interest rates. The reliability of a Treasury asset comes at the cost of lower returns relative to the market at large, even if those returns are inflation protected. This is why Rekenthaler points out that a TIPS ladder should be treated as a specialized asset rather than an all-purpose investment.
“The concept is unsuited for workers,” he writes, “as they attempt to grow their assets rather than spend them… However, to the extent that Social Security payments fail to meet a retiree’s fixed expenses, a TIPS ladder fund would fill the gap – more neatly, I think, than any conceivable competitor.”
A TIPS ladder might not help you build the retirement account that you need. For that, higher-value assets like stocks will probably do better. But once you approach retirement, it might help you build exactly the kind of security that you need. It’s a good investment to keep an eye out for.
Inflation Investing Tips
- A financial advisor can help you build a comprehensive investing plan. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
- Check out SmartAsset’s inflation calculator to get a quick estimate of the buying power of a dollar over time.
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Eric Reed is a freelance journalist who specializes in economics, policy and global issues, with substantial coverage of finance and personal finance. He has contributed to outlets including The Street, CNBC, Glassdoor and Consumer Reports. Eric’s work focuses on the human impact of abstract issues, emphasizing analytical journalism that helps readers more fully understand their world and their money. He has reported from more than a dozen countries, with datelines that include Sao Paolo, Brazil; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; and Athens, Greece. A former attorney, before becoming a journalist Eric worked in securities litigation and white collar criminal defense with a pro bono specialty in human trafficking issues. He graduated from the University of Michigan Law School and can be found any given Saturday in the fall cheering on his Wolverines.