Diamonds are forever. What about growth in the luxury sector?
A few months after Porsche teamed up with RIM to offer the Porsche Blackberry, Tonino Lamborghini recently announced the introduction of three gold plated cell phones (priced $1,850 to $2,750) and of an Android tablet ($2,300) aimed at the Russian market. This story neatly captures the current state of play in the global luxury industry: a prestigious European brand flashing a status product at a BRIC consumer. Notwithstanding the gloom emanating from daily European headlines, the continent's luxury sector has been riding an unprecedented expansion. With their aggregate 70% market share in global luxury goods, a slew of European companies have been living their best years ever.
The Best of Times
Sales have risen strongly at BMW (BMW.DE trades in Frankfurt). And at LVMH (MC.PA trades in Paris), the French parent of Louis Vuitton, Dom Perignon, Bulgari and Tag Heuer. And at Hermes (RMS.PA trades in Paris) and Burberry (BRBY.L trades in London). And at Swatch Group (UHR.VX trades in Zurich), the Swiss parent of Breguet, Glashütte, Blancpain and Omega. In the two years 2010-11, BMW increased its sales by over 17% annually. LVMH increased theirs by an average 14%, Hermes by 18%, and Swatch by 22%. With record margins and cash flows, these results are oddly incongruous with a global economy limping and stumbling out of (or through, or back into) the 2008 financial crisis.
Burberry fiscal year ends in March; FY 2011 and 2012 shown here.
Hermes, LVMH, Swatch, Tiffany: organic growth, ex- currency impact and acquisitions
The boom has been fueled by rising demand in the BRIC countries and, to a lesser extent, in the United States. In 2011, sales in Asia (including Japan) were 28% of total revenues at BMW, 35% at LVMH, and as much as 54% at Swatch. At LVMH in 2011, sales in Asia ex-Japan and in the US grew by 27% and 18% year-on-year, respectively. For BMW, Asia represented 22.5% of unit sales in 2011, up from 10.6% in 2007.
If the rich, per F. Scott Fitzgerald, are different from you and me, then the suppliers and courtiers who pander assiduously to their vanity or sense of perfectionism, the purveyors of the finest consumer products on earth, are certainly different from the average consumer company. Whether by sheer luck or brilliant foresight, luxury goods companies now find themselves at the nexus of two main drivers of demand. First, the global rich, whose numbers have been increasing, are less sensitive to the economic cycle. They have big reserves of savings and can spend on luxury items even if their incomes falter for a year or two. Most will continue to consume luxury unless the economy is hit by a severe downturn. One of the reasons that BMW is bullish on the future is the fact that the number of millionaires is expected to rise in developed markets as well as in the BRIC countries and Turkey and South Korea (identified as the BRIKT + China in a BMW presentation).
Second, the newly rich and middle class in emerging markets have embraced luxury products with a vengeance. Like the Japanese in the 1990s, shoppers in the BRIC countries are today's most profligate luxury customers. Chinese buyers discovered luxury brands years ago and they have been buying with gusto. Significantly, their buying power and obsession with luxury is felt far beyond their borders. According to the Boston Consulting Group, travelers from emerging markets (tourists and business people) account for a large share of global luxury sales, even if some of these sales are recorded in Paris, New York or Tokyo. BCG says that the Chinese spend as much on luxury while away as they do at home.
Barring a global recession, these two groups, the rich everywhere and the middle class in emerging markets, will continue to spend on luxury products and, increasingly, on luxury services. These are undoubtedly the best of times for the luxury sector. The question then becomes: what will derail the boom? A shift in demographics could do it.
A Brief Digression on Demographics and Markets
In general, the world is full of coincidences but it would be foolish to accept all of them at face value. Sometimes it makes sense to ask questions to find out whether two concurrent events are really a coincidence or whether they are related. Among coincidences that we should not take at face value are important reversals in markets which occur at the same time as demographic inflection points. For example, the Japanese stock market peaked in 1990, the same year that the number of Japanese turning 40 also peaked. It could be a coincidence but then the US stock market peaked in 2000, the same year that the number of Americans turning 40 also peaked. It could be another coincidence or alternatively, there could be a poorly understood dynamic underlying the stock market, a dynamic directly linked to demographics, aging and investing etc. (The Chinese stock market peaked in 2007, one to five years after the number of Chinese turning 40 hit its own peak).
Demographics are generally ignored or underestimated by market participants. They are often seen as far-removed inputs in the economy which eventually manifest themselves through other measures. For example, an investor may ignore the change in demographics in a given area or region or country, confident in the knowledge that any significant shift will eventually appear in monthly retail or housing data or other economic indicators. The only problem with this thinking is a large gap in timing. Monthly status updates from the economy are mostly embedded in market prices by the time they are released. By contrast, an analysis of demographic trends can help make a forecast several months or even years before significant changes filter through the monthly economic data.
One demographic measure which should certainly be examined in its relation to markets is the dependency ratio which measures the number of dependents per working adult (it is the sum of people under 14 and over 65, divided by the number of people aged 15-64). The table (compiled from a UN 2010 report) shows the ratio (per 100 people) for various countries and regions. A declining ratio is generally positive for the economy because income earners have fewer dependents and can divert dollars to investing and spending.
The world's dependency ratio which fell steadily from 1970 to 2010 will be essentially flat until 2020-30 and will start to rise beyond 2030. In the US and Europe, the ratio hit bottom around 2010 and will rise in future decades. But in Japan, it hit bottom in 1990 and has been rising ever since. Perhaps this explains in part Japan's lost decade which turned into two lost decades.
In the BRIC countries, the dependency ratio is still falling in Brazil and India, but it is near bottom and is set to rise in Russia and China. And in Africa, the ratio will continue to fall for a long time.
As the ratio rises, there will be fewer dollars to spend on discretionary items because more of these dollars will have to be redirected to taking care of dependents, whether this is done directly through assisting family members or indirectly through charities or government social programs.
Which brings us back to luxury goods, in some ways the quintessential discretionary items. Will a rise in the dependency ratio in developed countries, in Russia and in China lead to a slowdown for the sector?
Looking into the future, the case of Japan can be informative. It was not long ago that the Japanese were avid buyers of luxury goods, both at home and while traveling. But a 2009 study by McKinsey found that the Japanese appetite for luxury goods has been on the wane since 2001 (in volume terms) and it noted that their purchases started to decline (in currency terms) in mid-2006, two full years before the onset of the financial crisis.
Whether by coincidence or causality (the latter in my opinion), the demographic data fits well with this turn of events. Because of a low birth rate and an ageing population, Japan's dependency ratio, 0.43 in 1990, rose modestly to 0.47 by 2000 and more briskly to 0.56 by 2010. It is on its way to 0.7 in 2020.
Nonetheless, heavy investing by luxury companies over several decades means that the Japanese luxury market remains the second largest in the world, after that of the United States. LVMH has 360 stores in Japan, a country 10% smaller than California, vs. 621 for all of the US.
The dependency ratio is bottoming in Russia and China but it will only rise slowly for the next 10 to 15 years. This suggests that, barring other developments, the luxury sector could continue to do well, but its growth rate may taper off. Of all the BRIC countries, India's ratio looks the most promising and it offers the best longer term profile if its policymakers can set the country on a path to reap the demographic dividend resulting from a decline in its fertility rate. Although luxury companies have a presence in India, their footprint is much smaller than in China and Japan. For example, Louis Vuitton has over 50 stores in Japan, 39 stores in China and 4 in India.
Africa will see a steady decline of its dependency ratio in the 21st century. Luxury companies have a small to nonexistent presence on the continent. Swatch Group records a minuscule 0.6% of its sales there. Louis Vuitton has three stores, of which two in South Africa and one in Morocco, but none in oil-rich Angola or Nigeria. Porsche (PAH3.DE trades in Frankfurt) has seven 'Porsche Centres' in Africa, of which three in South Africa and one each in Angola, Nigeria, Egypt and Ghana. But it has 42 'Centres' in China, 23 in Russia and 8 in Brazil. Although store count is an incomplete measure (because of sales through third party outlets), a larger number of own-brand stores denotes a greater confidence in the stability and growth of a given market. If Africa is the next economic frontier, these are indeed very early days for luxury goods companies on the continent.
They should sit up and take note. A team led by Hinh T. Dinh, Chief Economist at the World Bank, recently examined Africa's prospects as a new manufacturing hub. Dinh writes:
"The ongoing redistribution of cost advantages in labor-intensive manufacturing presents an opportunity for Sub-Saharan Africa to start producing many light manufactures, enhance private investment and create millions of jobs.
According to new evidence, feasible, low-cost, sharply focused policy initiatives aimed at enhancing private investment could launch the region on a path to becoming competitive in light manufacturing.
These initiatives would complement progress on broader investment reforms and could foster industrialization and raise the market share of domestically produced goods in rapidly growing local markets for light manufacturers."
Rise of Experiential Luxury
In its report, BCG estimated that sales of the global luxury sector amounted to $660 billion in goods (including luxury cars) and another $770 billion in services. BCG also highlighted a gradual shift in customer preference from owning luxury (goods) to experiencing luxury (services). Experiential luxury includes spa services, safaris, luxury travel, fine dining, special art auctions and other services. BCG deems this subsector to be growing by 12% per year while the market for luxury goods grows by 3 to 7%.
A key driver of experiential luxury is the aging of the population in North America, Europe, Japan and China. As people get older, they are less interested in owning expensive watches and handbags and more interested in valuable experiences. Some luxury product companies are trying to position accordingly. In its considerable portfolio, LVMH now also counts Cheval Blanc, a high-end hotel in Courchevel. But these efforts are so far embryonic.
So can the boom last? Yes, but projecting into the future the strategy of the past ten years will not be enough. The reversal of the dependency ratio in several BRIC countries and the rise of experiential luxury in developed markets pose the biggest challenges. Luxury goods companies will have to adapt their geographic and product footprint accordingly. In the near-term, wider concerns about the global economy override demographic developments. But in the longer term, India and Africa look like promising frontiers while the rest of the world (including China) grapples with an older population and a rising number of dependents.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.