October. This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August, and February.” — Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)
I wonder what Mark Twain would say about speculating in wine in October, May or any other month? I expect he would be suspicious of the idea. Mark Twain was a great author but a lousy investor. His cautious attitude toward investment was based upon his own disastrous financial experiences.
I was reminded of this quote this morning when I opened the New York Times “Special Section on Wealth & Personal Finance.” The cover features a half-page color image of an exploding cherry pie (or maybe it’s strawberry — what do you think?). I am not really sure what it means.
What Time Is It?
But the theme of the special section is pretty clear — time to consider alternative investments and investment strategies. And on page 4 I found the article that got me thinking about Mr. Twain’s investment advice: Investing in Wine: Now May Be the Time by William L. Hamilton. It’s an interesting article — click on the link to read it.
The idea, of course, is that wine prices have been falling, so this is an opportunity to buy in at the market bottom.
“It’s a great time to buy wine, the best time in a decade,” said Charles Curtis, who is in charge of Christie’s North American wine department. “People we’ve never heard of are jumping into the market, taking advantage of the lull to get into collecting, now that they have access.”
I am naturally a bit suspicious of buying advice given by people with an interest in the sales. They always seem to think that now is the time to buy. Rising prices? Buy now because they can only go higher. Falling prices? But now before they rise again. Mr. Curtis may be right, and I’m sure his recommendation is honestly given, but he might be wrong, too.
These are uncommon economic times and market changes are unusually hard to predict, which makes investing even in fine wines feel a bit speculative. Alfred Marshall, the great Cambridge economist, argued that markets are generally as stable and predictable as an apple in a bow. Prices fall when there is a surplus until the excess supply is gone. Prices rise when there is a shortage until the shortage disappears. The movement towards stable equilibrium is quite strong and predictable.
But wine markets today look a bit more unstable — more like that exploding pie now that I think of it. Here’s another quote from the New York Times article.
Though falling prices kept many collectors from selling, reducing the amount of wine on the market, returning prices in the last four months have produced an uncomfortable volume of wine to sell, said Charles Curtis of Christie’s.
The first part of the sentence describes how a market responds to surplus — falling price causes sellers to pull some goods out of the market. The second part describes a market in shortage — the opposite condition — where rising price brings sellers into the market. This is not a combination of forces that you expect to see in the same paragraph much less the same sentence.
There are a number of supply-demand changes that could account for this (Econ 101 students — do your stuff), but one distinct possibility is what economists call over-shooting, which is a characteristic of some financial markets and especially foreign exchange markets and maybe now wine markets. When over-shooting occurs, prices don’t drop smoothly to equilibrium like an apple in a bowl. Rather they over-shoot the equilibrium and then shoot back up. Back and forth, sometimes in increasingly unstable cycles. Market equilibrium and the “true market price” are hard to determine.
It is difficult to know where prices will go next in a market like this and the difference between “investing” and “speculating,” at least in the short run, is not completely clear. I don’t give investment advice (or rate wines, either, which makes this an unusual wine blog), but I’m not planning to rush into high end wine markets just yet. Too risky for me.
Investors vs Collectors
But then I’m not really a wine investor. In my reading I find the terms wine investor and wine collector often used as synonyms, but I’m not sure they should be. A wine collector buys what he or she wants to own (and, presumably, drink). It’s a personal thing. A wine investor should buy what other people will want to own, which might have nothing to do with personal taste. I have known only a few real wine investors but lots of wine collectors who justify at least some of their purchases as investments, but don’t manage them as they would a real investment.
In today’s market, however, both groups need to realize that there is a significant speculative element to their wine purchases and keep Mark Twain’s 115 year-old warning in mind!
Note: Stephen Bachmann at Vinfolio posted an interesting reponse to this article. Click here to read it.