What’s Old Is New Again: Is Inflation Here to Stay?

  • by John W. Portwood Jr., DDS, MS, MSF, CFP, CLU, ChFC, MAGD
  • Feb 7, 2022
As we enter the post-pandemic world and begin to absorb some of the paradigm shifts in how we work and play, one of our old friends (I use that term sarcastically) has arisen from the dead. Inflation has roared back to a point that it now demands our attention. Inflation is that slow, insidious erosion in the purchasing power that our money provides. It affects the products and services we buy, the way we provide our dental services and how we can enjoy our retirements. In short, the higher the inflation rate, the more money we need to purchase the same lifestyle we had. 

As a child of the ’70s and ’80s, I can offer a view that many dentists today were not around to witness. As I graduated from dental school in 1980, I was faced with 16% interest rates on borrowing rates for equipment. Interest rates today are around 4%. Back then, you could receive a one-year certificate of deposit (CD) that returned 14%, and you could get a five-year CD for 12% a year. To put it mildly, it was a very difficult time to open your dental practice. 

At that time, monetary policy and rising energy costs were the primary culprits for the inflationary spike.1 As the Federal Reserve began constricting the money supply and OPEC opened the spigots on oil, these inflationary pressures slowly subsided. 

Can we expect double-digit inflation this time? I truly don’t see that coming, as the causes of this inflationary spike are different. The Federal Reserve has been artificially controlling liquidity in the markets with its policy of buying Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities. While the Federal Reserve stepping in with these bond- and mortgage-backed securities purchases allowed us to navigate the pandemic shock without the country plunging into a severe and prolonged recession, it has completely altered the freemarket system dynamics. The long-awaited tapering of the bond buying should begin soon, which will decrease the liquidity in the market, but it is also likely to cause a rise in interest rates.2 

Supply chain issues may be the largest impact on inflation at this time. It will eventually correct itself, but the timeframe is uncertain, with many expecting issues to last through 2022. The problem is multifaceted, starting with COVID-19 infections affecting the workforce in countries where much of the manufacturing is done. After the products are made, they are loaded on ships that travel to the West Coast of the United States. At the time of this writing, there are over 100 of these massive container ships off the coast of Los Angeles and Long Beach unable to unload their containers expediently because of complex logistical supply chain issues.3 After the boats are finally unloaded, there is a lack of long-distance drivers to take the merchandise to their destination. The problem appears not to be a lack of drivers that are getting in the business, but rather a lack of the industry being able to retain them.4 To give an idea of the financial impact, the U.S. Bank Freight Payment Index hit its highest level on record for money spent on truck shipments in Q2 of 2021, with the index rising 10.1% just from Q1.5 This has a dramatic impact on pricing of products, causing inflation to surge. Even the final steps of delivery to the consumer are impacted. FedEx recently reported that it could not meet the shipping demand due to a lack of drivers. The company has racked up $450 million in extra costs due to labor shortages and its contractor model; meanwhile, on-time performance for express and ground packages has sunk to 85%, and shares have dropped 9%.6 

Finally, finding employees is causing increasing issues. All of us are aware of “Help Wanted” signs everywhere, especially in the service sector. The factors behind this lack of workers are multifaceted. To attain and retain employees, employers must raise wages, which has a dramatic effect on profitability. These employers are having to raise the prices of their products or services to compensate for these increased expenses. 

The uncertain future of the global market as well as inflation is affecting even businesses that are doing relatively well. The retail giant Target recently destroyed every metric in its 2021 Q3 report — with net income totaling $1.49 billion, up from $1.01 billion the previous year — yet still was punished by the market with a drop in shares for fears of its future given these increasing inflationary pressures.7 

Effects to Overall Economy 

The pandemic has caused major disruptions in our economy, with tremendous pricing pressures forced on businesses that are carried forward to the consumer. The Federal Reserve tells us that these pressures are transitory and will pass soon as the supply chain improves and the economy bounces back. At present, the costs to transport our goods have dramatically increased, with shipping currently up over 600% due to the issues discussed above.8 Freight railroad transportation is up around 7% year over year.9 While the Federal Reserve feels this will quickly dissipate, I have my concerns. Remember, all inflation is eventually transtory; it will eventually end — the question is how long will it last. Most of the analysts in the arena feel, as I do, that these disruptions will probably last through 2022. 

Enduring unemployment is also a problem, with many people leaving the workforce to retire early, taking a temporary absence to care for others, staying home out of fear of returning to work with COVID-19 still present, reevaluating their careers out of discontent with the job they were doing or lacking training for the new economy. According to Reuters, in August 2020, nearly 900,000 U.S. workers left jobs at hotels and restaurants and 1.3 million left retailers, service-related and healthcare positions.10 Additionally, many workers who qualified for unemployment benefits after losing their jobs during the pandemic received more compensation through unemployment than they would by returning to the workforce. Other causes of the labor shortage can be tied to the pandemic; drug overdose deaths in 2020 rose nearly 30% from 2019, with more than 93,000 deaths. Similarly, gun-related deaths were up 11% at almost 44,000.10 Deaths from COVID-19 are conservatively estimated to account for between 4.3% and 7.3% of the 3.5 million people who are no longer in the workforce.11 The problems are complex, and the solutions are even more complex. As to when they will be resolved is beyond my expertise; however, I don’t believe it will occur quickly. This leads us to try and decide how we will address these problems. 

I have been asked many times about how to invest in this type of economy when there is so much uncertainty. First, it is important that we assume that this will last more than a few months. Once we agree on this, it becomes easier to develop an action plan. 

As far as the investing world, there are several areas that usually do well as inflation increases. The most conservative investment would be in treasury inflation-protected securities (TIPS), which are securities that are indexed to inflation and are issued by the Treasury. You’ll never get rich with TIPS, but they are an inflationary hedge. Gold has also been an inflationary hedge in the past, but it doesn’t appear to be quite the hedge it once was due to lack of demand. Many are saying that digital currency (Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin, etc.) is the new hedge, but I am not seeing the correlation with inflationary pressures. It is a new asset class, but is highly speculative, with large daily moves in price. I’m not sure that would qualify it as a currency either, especially with no government backing. 

Another area that usually performs well during these inflationary periods is real estate, although it is highly priced at this time. With changes in workplace needs for commercial space, an increase in online retail hurting brick-and-mortar businesses, and pricing on residential properties increasing, prices alone deliver a great deal of concern over the real estate industry itself. According to Forbes, the median existing home price grew to $353,900 in October 2021, up 13% from October 2020.12 Throw in the specter of increasing interest rates due to the Federal Reserve starting its taper of bond buying (especially mortgage-backed bonds), and this might not be the sector of choice. One area of real estate that might perform well is land itself, which tends to do well during periods of inflation. The American Farm Bureau Federation reported in August 2021 that agricultural real estate values were up 7% (or $220 per acre) from 2020.13 In a September 2021 article, Successful Farming reported many reasons for the increase, such as government programs, the trade war with China, low interest rates combined with high commodity prices, and the opportunity for transitional land sales as new home construction increases in rural areas due to migrations from urban areas during the pandemic. Further, analysts interviewed expect the increase to continue for the near future.14 

Another sector that traditionally performs well is industrials. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that recently passed will provide a tailwind to this sector as the country begins to repair its crumbling roads, bridges and drainage systems. Typically, as the industrial sector flourishes, materials, including mining stocks, tend to flourish as well. 

The most important thing to look for is to analyze a company’s pricing power — described by Warren Buffett as its “moat,” or attributes that enable it to withstand inflationary pressures by increasing prices to the consumer without affecting the bottom line. An example is a company such as Apple, which has tremendous cash flows, an enviable net margin and an impeccable return on equity. It also has a loyal following of consumers who will pay whatever they need to in order to own the product. These companies can withstand inflationary hits much better than smaller, less profitable companies that struggle with debt issues or marginal profitability. 

Effects on Dentistry 

The most important question is how does this affect us in dentistry and our everyday practices? Based on the information above, we know there may be supply chain disruptions in the materials and equipment that we order and that we can expect to pay more for these products. We also may find ourselves faced with delays in obtaining our supplies, so we must adjust any just-in-time ordering and be sure we have a few months’ supply of the products we need on a routine basis. We also have to understand that we will be paying more for many of the supplies that we use. This increase in inventory and supply expense will have to be accounted for in our pricing. 

The purchase of new equipment may also be a problem, as delays in shipping can create a problem with delivery of the needed equipment. This definitely poses a problem, as many times we don’t know we need a piece of equipment until it breaks. Although large suppliers have access to this equipment, their inventories may be limited, causing longer than expected waits. This is a problem that cannot usually be foreseen unless you know that a certain piece of equipment is on its last leg of use. In this case, it might be better to make a preemptive purchase before the emergency arises. Also understand that inflation is only going to make that equipment cost more in the future. Looming rises in interest rates may also increase your financing costs. These are all things to bear in mind should you be planning to add or replace equipment in order to update your technology or remodel your practice. 

We may also be facing increasing building rental costs as inflation affects leases. It won’t affect us if we own the buildings we work in, but it will affect us if we must rent from others and are faced with expiring leases. If you find your lease is increasing more than you’re comfortable with, it may be time to brush up on your negotiating skills. Remember that rental pricing increases tend to be area-specific, and your area may not have gone up that much. If there are vacancies in your building, your landlord might be willing to be more lenient in order to keep you there. Dental offices add stability to commercial/retail spaces and are looked at favorably. 

As I lecture to dentists often, the most important advice I give them is to raise fees annually. Many dentists are hesitant to raise their fees, even when the world around them is raising theirs. We absorb these expenses instead of passing them on to our patients. This is bad business. Pick a date annually to raise your fees, and increase them every year on this day. I personally like to increase fees on my birthday; that way I give myself an income boost as a birthday present. An increase of 3%–4% is easily absorbed by patients without complaint. Your patients understand that your costs go up, also. Too often, dentists wait several years between increases and then increase them by 10% to catch up. This large of an increase is very noticeable and will cause patients to leave. Raising fees annually is imperative in fighting the effects of inflation. 

Hiring is also a problem at this time, with a dearth of excellent, qualified staff in the marketplace. To attract these staff members, you may have to increase salaries and/or benefit packages. Retention of existing staff is extremely important, as great staff members can easily be lured away by other offices. Take care of your staff members. They are essential to your success. However, be careful when increasing benefits or salary as, once they are given, they are difficult to take away once the environment is normalized. Bonuses may work better in this case. 

In short, the conditions that face the country are the same inflationary conditions that face dentists. Understanding the causes of the problem is beneficial, as it allows us to better plan going forward. Remember, although I don’t believe these forces are as transitory as the Fed implies, I do feel they will be around for at least another year. 

John W. Portwood Jr., DDS, MS, MSF, CFP, CLU, ChFC, MAGD, is a nationally recognized lecturer on issues involving financial planning and investing and how they affect dentists. He currently practices in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 

To comment on this article, email impact@agd.org

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