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Can Foreign Currencies Act as an Inflation Hedge?

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Inflation Hedge

Inflation Hedge

This infographic is available as a poster.

Can Foreign Currencies Act as an Inflation Hedge?

Inflation is like corrosion. Initially, it can make investment returns less attractive. Over time, it can significantly eat away at an investment’s value. For U.S. investors looking for an inflation hedge, holding foreign currencies may be one option.

But just how effective are they at managing inflation risk? In this Markets in a Minute chart from New York Life Investments, we look at how the performance of foreign currencies compared to U.S. inflation rates over the last four decades.

How to Hedge Against Inflation

Inflation reduces the value of a dollar over time. To manage this risk, investors look for returns that are higher than the inflation rate. For example, a currency that appreciates 6% during 2% inflation may be considered a relatively good inflation hedge.

What makes a currency appreciate? A currency will perform well against the U.S. dollar if investors consider the issuing economy to be strong. This is because foreign investors will look to purchase investments in the applicable currency, driving up its demand.

Foreign Currency Appreciation vs. U.S. Inflation

Here is how the four largest non-U.S. reserve currencies have performed from 1981-2020. We measured a foreign currency’s appreciation against the U.S. dollar using annual exchange rates. U.S. inflation was measured by the percentage change in the average consumer price index for all urban consumers. Neither metric was seasonally adjusted.

YearAverage U.S. InflationEuropean euroChinese yuanJapanese yenBritish pound
20201.2%1.9%0.1%2.1%0.5%
20191.8%-5.6%-4.5%1.3%-4.7%
20182.4%4.4%2.2%1.5%3.5%
20172.1%2.0%-1.8%-3.2%-5.2%
20161.3%-0.2%-5.7%10.2%-12.8%
20150.1%-19.8%-2.0%-14.5%-7.9%
20141.6%0.1%-0.2%-8.3%5.1%
20131.5%3.2%2.6%-22.3%-1.4%
20122.1%-8.3%2.4%-0.2%-1.2%
20113.1%4.8%4.5%9.2%3.7%
20101.6%-5.1%0.9%6.3%-1.4%
2009-0.3%-5.7%1.7%9.4%-18.4%
20083.8%6.9%8.7%12.2%-8.0%
20072.9%8.4%4.6%-1.3%7.9%
20063.2%0.9%2.7%-5.6%1.3%
20053.4%0.1%1.0%-1.8%-0.7%
20042.7%9.0%0.0%6.7%10.8%
20032.3%16.5%0.0%7.4%8.1%
20021.6%5.3%0.0%-3.0%4.2%
20012.8%-3.1%0.0%-12.8%-5.3%
20003.4%-15.4%0.0%5.2%-6.7%
19992.2%N/A0.3%13.2%-2.5%
19981.5%N/A0.2%-8.2%1.2%
19972.3%N/A0.2%-11.3%4.7%
19962.9%N/A0.4%-15.8%-1.1%
19952.8%N/A3.1%8.0%3.0%
19942.6%N/A-49.5%8.0%2.0%
19933.0%N/A-4.7%12.4%-17.6%
19923.0%N/A-3.5%5.8%-0.1%
19914.2%N/A-11.3%7.2%-0.9%
19905.4%N/A-27.2%-5.0%8.2%
19894.8%N/A-1.0%-7.7%-8.7%
19884.1%N/A0.0%11.4%7.9%
19873.6%N/A-7.8%14.1%10.5%
19861.9%N/A-17.6%29.4%11.6%
19853.5%N/A-26.3%-0.4%-3.0%
19844.4%N/A-17.6%0.0%-13.4%
19833.2%N/A-4.4%4.6%-15.3%
19826.2%N/A-11.0%-12.9%-15.8%
198110.4%N/A--2.7%-14.8%

Note: The euro was created in 1999, which is why annual appreciation data against the U.S. dollar is not applicable prior to 2000. The Chinese yuan / U.S. dollar foreign exchange rate was not available for 1980, which is why annual appreciation for 1981 is unavailable.

The Best and Worst Inflation Hedges, Historically

Based on available data, here is the percentage of time each currency’s annual appreciation was greater than the U.S. inflation rate.

European euroChinese yuanJapanese yenBritish pound
43%18%48%33%

The Japanese yen acted as the best inflation hedge, with its annual appreciation beating U.S. inflation 48% of the time. Demand for the safe haven currency has historically been strong for three main reasons:

  • After the Japanese banking crisis of the late 1990s, the government introduced a number of policy measures. This helped Japan enter the global financial crisis with a relatively stable banking system.
  • Japan is the largest creditor nation, meaning the value of foreign assets held by Japanese investors is higher than the value of Japanese assets owned by foreign investors. In times of market uncertainty, the money of Japanese investors tends to return home—driving up demand for the yen.
  • To take advantage of near-zero interest rates in Japan, investors conduct “carry trades” where they borrow funds in Japan and lend or invest in countries where returns are higher. During turbulent markets, investors may unwind these trades, furthering demand for the yen.

The Chinese yuan has been the worst inflation hedge, with the yuan’s appreciation beating U.S. inflation only 18% of the time since 1982. This is perhaps not surprising, given that the yuan was pegged against the U.S. dollar in 1994 to keep the yuan low and make China’s exports competitive.

In 2005, China moved to a “managed float” system where the price of the yuan is allowed to fluctuate in a narrow band relative to a basket of foreign currencies. This shift led to the yuan appreciating against the U.S. dollar in some years.

The Risks of Currency as an Inflation Hedge

As the chart makes clear, investing in foreign currencies can be very volatile. Not only can currency depreciation lead to losses, there are additional factors for investors to consider such as geopolitical risks.

Of course, the effectiveness of foreign currencies as an inflation hedge depends on their attractiveness relative to the U.S. dollar. If a country is also affected by the factors causing U.S. inflation—such as an increase in the money supply—its currency could be negatively affected.

Given the uncertainties associated with this strategy, investors may want to consider foreign currencies alongside other asset classes to help manage inflation risk.

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Markets in a Minute

Charted: Unemployment and Recessions Over 70 Years

Despite market uncertainty, U.S. unemployment is low, at 3.7%. In this infographic, we show unemployment and recessions since 1948.

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Unemployment and Recessions

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Charting Unemployment and Recessions Over 70 Years

As of August 2022, the U.S. unemployment rate sits at 3.7%, below its 74-year average of 5.5%.

Why does this matter today? Employment factors heavily into whether economists determine the country is in a recession. In fact, in the last several decades, employment-related factors have some of the heaviest weightings when a recession determination is made.

In this Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments, we look at unemployment and recessions since 1948.

Why Is the Unemployment Rate Important?

To start, let’s look at how unemployment affects the economy.

During low unemployment and a strong labor market, wages often increase. This is a central concern to the Federal Reserve as higher wages could spur more spending and notch up inflation.

To curb inflation, the central bank may increase interest rates. As the economy begins to feel the effects of rising interest rates, it may fall into a recession as the cost of capital increases and consumer spending slows.

Who Determines It’s a Recession?

A committee of eight economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) in Massachusetts make the call, although often several months after a recession has happened. As a result, employment data often acts as a lagging indicator.

This committee of academics looks at a number of variables beyond two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. Other factors include:

  • Nonfarm payroll employment
  • Real personal income less transfers
  • Real personal consumption expenditures
  • Industrial production
  • Wholesale retail sales adjusted for price changes
  • Real GDP

A widespread decline in economic activity across the economy, as opposed to just one sector, is also considered.

Unemployment and Recessions Over History

Over the last 12 business cycles, the unemployment rate averaged 4.7% at the peak and 8.1% during the trough. The below table shows how the unemployment rate changed over various U.S. business cycles, with data from NBER:

Peak Month Unemployment RateTrough Month Unemployment Rate
Nov 19483.8%Oct 19497.9%
Jul 19532.6%May 19545.9%
Aug 19574.1%Apr 19587.4%
Apr 19605.2%Feb 19616.9%
Dec 19693.5%Nov 19705.9%
Nov 19734.8%Mar 19758.6%
Jan 19806.3%Jul 19807.8%
Jul 19817.2%Nov 198210.8%
Jul 19905.5%Mar 19916.8%
Mar 20014.3%Nov 20015.5%
Dec 20075.0%Jun 20099.5%
Feb 20203.5%Apr 202014.7%

In 1953, following post-WWII expansion, the unemployment rate fell to 2.6%, near record lows.

During this time, the economy faced strong consumer demand and high inflation after a period of prolonged low interest rates. To combat price pressures, the Federal Reserve increased interest rates in 1954, and the economy fell into recession. By May 1954, the unemployment rate more than doubled.

In 1981, the unemployment rate was high during both the peak of the cycle (7.2%) and the trough (10.8%) by late 1982. This marked the end of the 1970s stagflationary era, characterized by slow growth and high unemployment.

More recently, at the peak of the business cycle in 2020 the unemployment rate stood at 3.5%, closer to levels seen today.

Unemployment Today: A Double-Edged Sword

As of July 2022, the number of job vacancies is at 11.2 million, near record highs.

To reign in the inflationary pressures of the current job market—which saw year-over-year wage increases of 5.2% in both July and August—the Federal Reserve may take a more aggressive stance on interest rate hikes.

The good news is that labor force participation is increasing. As of August, labor force participation was within 1% of pre-pandemic levels, offering relief to the labor market supply. Higher labor force participation could lessen wage growth without unemployment levels having to rise. Since more people are competing for jobs, there is less leverage for salary negotiation.

Going further, one study shows that since the Great Financial Crisis, labor market participation has had a greater influence on wage growth than unemployment levels or job openings.

Against these opposing forces of higher job vacancies and higher labor market participation, the outlook for unemployment, along with its wider effects on the economy, remain unclear.

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How Closely Related Are Historical Mortgage Rates and Housing Prices?

With mortgage rates climbing, could housing prices drop? We explore the relationship between historical mortgage rates and house prices.

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Scatterplot showing the relationship between historical mortgage rates and house prices

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Are Historical Mortgage Rates and House Prices Related?

Mortgage rates are rising at their fastest pace in at least 30 years. As mortgage rates climb, it becomes more expensive to finance a home purchase. This leaves many homebuyers with lower budgets. Could house prices drop as a result?

In this Markets in a Minute from New York Life Investments, we explore the relationship between historical mortgage rates and housing prices over the last 30 years. It’s the last in a three-part series on house prices.

Historical Mortgage Rates vs Housing Prices

To compare trends in historical mortgage rates and housing prices over time, we calculated year-over-year percentage changes. We used monthly data spanning from January 1992 to June 2022. Here’s a summary of movements over that timeframe.

Scenario# of Months
Mortgage Rate Decline, House Price Growth193
Mortgage Rate Growth, House Price Growth117
Mortgage Rate Decline, House Price Decline49
Mortgage Rate Growth, House Price Decline6

November 2006 has been excluded from the above tally as year-over-year mortgage rate growth was 0.0% at that time.

Mortgage rates and house prices have a weak positive correlation of 0.26. This means that when mortgage rates increase, house prices typically also increase. What could be contributing to this trend? Mortgage rate increases are associated with periods when the Federal Reserve is raising its policy rate in response to inflation that is higher than desired. Often, this coincides with strong economic growth, low unemployment, and rising wages, which can all strengthen home prices.

Over the last 30 years, it was quite rare for mortgage rates to rise while house prices simultaneously dropped. This only occurred in the early stages of the Global Financial Crisis and during the recovery.

DateMortgage Rate YoY ChangeHouse Price YoY Change
Aug 20070.8%-0.6%
Oct 20071.1%-1.9%
Jan 20101.6%-2.9%
Apr 20106.3%-1.5%
May 20103.3%-1.4%
Jul 20110.4%-3.8%

While mortgage rates saw some upward movement in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, it took the housing market longer to recover. In fact, housing prices didn’t see a positive year-over-year change until March 2012.

Is There a Lag Effect?

A change in mortgage rates may not be immediately reflected in housing prices. To test whether there was a lag effect, we also explored the relationship between historical mortgage rates and housing prices two years later.* For instance, we compared the annual percentage change in mortgage rates in 2020 to housing price growth in 2022.

Here’s what the data looked like with this two year lag of housing price growth.

Scenario# of Months
Mortgage Rate Decline, House Price Growth190
Mortgage Rate Growth, House Price Growth97
Mortgage Rate Decline, House Price Decline37
Mortgage Rate Growth, House Price Decline17

*We tested for a lag effect using house prices six months later, one year later, two years later, and three years later. The data using house prices 6 months later and three years later revealed no correlation between mortgage rates and housing prices. The data using house prices one year later revealed the same correlation as using house price data from two years later. November 2006 has been excluded from the above tally as year-over-year mortgage rate growth was 0.0% at that time.

The pattern was similar, albeit with a slightly negative correlation of -0.15. In other words, mortgage rates and house prices tended to move in opposite directions.

For example, this occurred in 2020 when mortgage rates were dropping and the Federal Reserve had not yet begun to raise its policy rate. Two years later in 2022, house prices were seeing record high levels of growth amid strong demand and low supply.

Compared to our first analysis above, there were also more instances where mortgage rates increased and house prices decreased. This activity all related to mortgage rates rising from 2005-2007 amid inflation concerns, with housing prices crashing in the following years due to subprime mortgages and the Global Financial Crisis.

Historical Mortgage Rates: One Piece of the Puzzle

Could the current rising mortgage rates cause housing prices to drop? In the last 30 years, there is no historical precedent for this apart from the Global Financial Crisis. Of course, subprime mortgages—mortgages to people with impaired credit scores—contributed to the housing market collapse at that time.

While researchers believe it’s unlikely housing price growth will turn negative, the pace of growth is slowing down. We can see this in the below chart showing trends between historical mortgage rates and housing prices over time.

Changes in historical mortgage rates and house prices over time. When the year-over-year mortgage rate changes has been above 20% for more than two months in a row, the pace of house price growth has slowed.

Historically, a slowdown in house price growth has occurred when mortgage rates increase rapidly. Since 1992, there have been four instances when mortgage rates rose over 20% year-over-year for more than two months in a row. Each of them has been accompanied by a deceleration in house price growth.

Time PeriodHouse Price YoY Change at StartHouse Price YoY Change at End
Sep 1994-Feb 19953.1%2.9%
Aug 2013-May 20147.2%4.7%
Sep 2018-Dec 20185.8%5.5%
Jan 2022-Jun 202218.4%16.2%

Note: House price data only available until June 2022 and does not reflect any fluctuations since that time.

In the first half of 2022, house price growth slowed by over two percentage points. However, it’s important to keep in mind that while mortgage rates and affordability can play a role in the housing market, there are other factors at play. The current market is buoyed by high demand as millennials reach their prime home buying years, coupled with a housing supply shortage.

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