With interest rates at historic lows and a federal government that cannot afford to have its interest payments rise, the Federal Reserve’s unprecedented Quantitative Easing program has no end in sight. Cheap money inevitably leads to inflation. So, whether it is apparent in current economic statistics or not, above-average rates of inflation are undoubtedly in our future.
Inflation has a disproportionate impact on the poor and elderly. The poor spend most of their income on essentials like food and gasoline, which are extremely sensitive to inflation. Meanwhile, the elderly usually own bonds and other “safe” assets that destroy purchasing power during periods of high inflation.
But the poor and the elderly are not the only ones in trouble when high inflation creeps its way into the economy. For many companies, an increase in the price of raw materials and other inputs will crush margins and lower profits. So even people with a high allocation to equities will feel the pain of high inflation.
That is, except for investors who own businesses that have pricing power. Pricing power is the key to outrunning inflation. Companies with pricing power can pass on higher input costs to their customers that keeps profits growing at least as fast as inflation. These are the stocks you want to own in all economic environments — but especially during periods of high inflation.
A Few Companies with Pricing Power
Philip Morris International Inc. (NYSE:PM) is an example of a company with pricing power. Philip Morris has nearly a 1/3 share of the markets in which it competes most heavily. This is due to the company’s strong tobacco brands, the most famous of which is Marlboro. The addictiveness of its tobacco products lends itself to customer stickiness, but the excise taxes placed on sales of cigarettes also benefits the company. The price of all cigarette brands are already high because of the taxes, and customers have shown that they are willing to pay a few bucks more for their favorite brand.
Philip Morris also owns a number of well-known food brands. Its portfolio includes Jell-O, Cool Whip, Cream of Wheat, Honey Bunches of Oats, Chips Ahoy, Snackwells, Toblerone, and countless other brands that have cheaper knock-offs — but customers are still willing to pay more for the real brand. The aversion to off-brand products is especially strong in American consumer culture, which gives Philip Morris a high degree of pricing power.
The Walt Disney Company (NYSE:DIS) is another company that can keep margins up amid high inflation. The company owns valuable TV networks, like ESPN, that dominate their segments. Disney also owns theme parks, countless hit movie franchises (and associated merchandise), and a strong brand name that makes nearly everything it touches golden. A one-of-a-kind business like Disney can maintain margins by raising advertising rates (for its TV networks) and raising prices of valuable merchandise.