How Tax Cuts in Hong Kong May Create a Tornado in Bordeaux
Wine prices are dropping in Hong Kong (click on the image to see one merchant’s sale announcement). The reason is that Hong Kong has abolished taxes on beer and wine. The tariff on wine was an incredible 80% until a few years ago, when it fell to a still hefty 40%. So the drop to a zero rate and the price reductions that should follow will be welcome news indeed for wine-drinkers in this prosperous Asian hub.
What prompted the HK government to take such an action, which cost the city over $70 million in lost tax revenue? One factor was a budget surplus, which made tax cuts possible. But why cut wine taxes? Imported wine in Asia is often an expensive luxury sold to well-heeled buyers who may not be very sensitive to price — just the kind of product that makes a logical target for tax policy. If the government can afford to cut taxes, why not target a tax that would provide more general benefit?
The answer, according to published accounts, is that Hong Kong’s policy isn’t about wine, it’s about money. By cutting wine taxes, the Hong Kong authorities hope to bring in more money, not less.
The world auction market for wine is large and growing. London (with annual wine auction sales of $1.2 billion) and New York are at the center of this market, but as much as 40 percent of the expensive auction wine is sold to Hong Kong residents. The high taxes on wine discourage HK buyers from bringing auction purchases home to drink or to re-sell, so the wine is held in foreign warehouses (or sometimes in bonded warehouses in HK).
Much of the world’s supply of great wine and demand for it too resides in Hong Kong, but the wine itself lives elsewhere. By abolishing the wine tax, the Hong Kong government hopes to exploit this fact and turn Hong Kong into Asia’s wine market center. Look for the big auction houses to organize HK wine practices to take advantage of the new market environment. And look for HK government revenues on the resulting auction enterprises to rise, perhaps enough to compensate for the initial tax cut.
The Papillon Effect
The impact of Hong Kong’s auctions are likely to be felt well beyond Asia and well outside the gilded halls of the auction houses. Have you heard of the Butterfly Effect? It is the idea that small changes in complex interconnected systems can sometimes produce large effects. The name, coined by Edward Lorenz in 1961, comes from the idea that a butterfly beating its wings in Brazil, by disturbing air flows in ways that compound and multiply, can theoretically cause a hurricane in Texas. It is a famous concept in the field of non-linear dynamics.
Natural systems are obviously complex and interdependent and sensitive to initial conditions. Tipping points, butterfly effects and the like are both theoretically possible and empirically observable. Economic systems can have these same properties. (I wrote a book a few years ago that examined the turbulent flows and non-linear dynamics of foreign exchange markets, for example.) This is perhaps especially true for complex global markets, like the market for wine.
The shift in the wine market to Hong Kong should have fairly significant effects on wine flows and prices — especially for trophy French and especially Bordeaux wines, the object of much London and soon Hong Kong auction activity. So I’m calling the effect of the HK wine tax cut the Papillon Effect (papillion is French for butterfly — if the HK buyers were focused on Italian wines it would be the Farfalle Effect). I will be interested to see just how much market turbulence the HK tax change creates.
Will the HK butterfly’s wings cause a tornado in Bordeaux? Yes, I think it will, although it might be difficult to tell how large the effect is because of the boom already in progress, both in the auction and en primeur markets, for these wines. Prices are already staggeringly high for the most famous and highly-rated products.
But the really interesting question concerns the side effects in other markets. How will surging Bordeaux prices affect the rest of the wine world? Will the object of speculation remain fairly narrowly focused or will the boom’s domain expand to include investment-grade wines from around the world? How far will the Papillon Effect extend?
And then there is the question of stability. The clear message of the Butterfly Effect is that the compoud effects of small changes may not be sustainable — they can be disruptive and even explosive, like a tornado.
Will the HK tax changes merely shift the wine market centers and expand demand and supply, or will it blow up a bubble, as often happens in financial markets? This is a question that Hong Kong financiers should consider as they raise their bidding paddles at the great wine auctions that seem sure to be coming their way soon!