I have sometimes made fun of my wine collector and investor friends, saying that they are engaged in what Thorstein Veblen might have called “Conspicuous Non-Consumption.” They buy some fine wines for the purpose of not enjoying them in the glass, or so it seems at times.
Owning the wines and visiting these great wines in their climate-climate-controlled secure storage lockers is pleasure enough. Drink them? Horror! Then they’d be gone! OK, I know it is more complicated than this, but you get the idea of the joke.
Not For Sale
Now a fascinating report from liv-ex.com, the fine wine market trading platform and research center, suggests that non-drinking of great Bordeaux wines must be considered along with another phenomenon that would make even Veblen scratch his head: producers who make a business of not selling their wines. Or not selling very much of what they produce.
“Final Thoughts on Bordeaux 2015” is the title of a Liv-ex report that tries to make sense of the recently concluded Bordeaux en-primeur campaign. This year’s market for 2015 wines was unusually complicated, the report indicates. Vintage quality varied greatly by sub-region, for example. And while critics gave the wines high markets overall, they didn’t do so consistently, which is important since the speculative value of a 97 score (Suckling’s overall rating of the vintage) is very much greater than 94 points (Wine Spectator‘s evaluation).
Add to this exchange rate changes in the run up to the Brexit vote and you have a recipe for confusion. But all of this doesn’t really explain the fact that seller prices were well above what the market expected and so not much wine changed hands (at least compared with a few years ago). The opportunity to re-set the market, which the Liv-ex analysts had anticipated, was apparently wasted.
High Taxes, Low Interest Rates
This wasn’t a universal situation, the report makes clear. 2015 was the best vintage ever for some producers and the market accepted the higher prices. And some producers offered necessary discounts to move their stocks. But many raised prices and seemed content with meager sales and big retained stocks. Why?
The answer, according to Liv-ex, is complicated and begins with today’s historically low interest rates, which make the cost of carrying inventory low. Fine, but don’t they need to sell wine to pay costs? Yes, Liv-ex explains, but the margins on the grand vins are very high and so most costs can be covered quickly with an initial tranche of sales. Second- and third-wines provide additional cash flow.
France’s high tax rates are also mentioned — postponing revenue is also postponing taxation (possibly until a more business-friendly administration takes office).
A Different Economic Model?
But perhaps the biggest factor, which contributes to the “new normal” that Liv-ex sees, is a change in the economic structure of the business. Profits from making and selling wine are now less important than maintaining and advancing the capital value of the chateau itself. Selling wine at a lower but very profitable market price is old news. Raising price to enhance reputation and capital value is the new strategy.
The Liv-ex study notes that
“Priorities have shifted from making sales and generating cash flow to trying to maximise prices (of the grand vin in particular) and by extension the capital value of their properties. Indeed, … the motivation to generate profits is dwarfed by that of keeping land values high. … Owners have achieved this by releasing smaller quantities onto the market and spreading their production across a second and sometimes a third label. … Many commentators ascribe this trend to deep pockets. It is true that most top chateaux these days are owned by billionaires and insurance companies, but this has always been the case. The main motivation for the strategy is exceptionally low interest rates.”
The combination of the factors described here combined with similar incentives for the negoçiants results in prices generally above what consumers are willing to pay, the Liv-ex study concludes. The 2015 Bordeaux market was an improvement over 2014, but this is a “low bar,” the study says. “Moreover, for as long as the current environment — distorted by low interest rates — persists, there will continue to be a standoff … ” between supply and demand.
Hotelling’s Rule Alternative
The Liv-Ex researchers study Bordeaux closely, so their theory is probably correct, but as I read the report I couldn’t help thinking of one of the most famous microeconomics theories of the first half of the 20th Century: Hotelling’s Rule, named for Harold Hotelling. Hotelling was interested in the rate at which a firm exploits a finite resource that it owned, assuming the usual (for economic theory) perfectly competitive market environment.
To over-simply, the objective is to maximize the present value of the finite resource and so the short-run production decision depends on whether market price is expected to rise faster or slower than the rate of interest. If price is expected to rise faster than the rate of interest, it paid to hold back production for the future. If price is expected to rise more slowly than the rate of interest, then selling now and investing the returns makes more sense.
Under theoretical conditions, the equilibrium occurs when market price rises at an exponential compound interest rate.
A given vintage of a particular wine is indeed a finite resource to be sold today or sold tomorrow. Interest rates today are extremely low and so only very modest expected price increases are necessary to induce a winery to hold back stocks. At zero interest, prices need only remain steady to make stock-building a viable strategy.
The incentive to retain inventory is stronger than this, in fact, because the Bordeaux fine wine market is not perfectly competitive and restricting supply of a particular classified wine raises its current price. So in fact withholding stock may allow a wine firm to have its revenue “cake” today (scarcity premium for the wine that is sold) and eat it tomorrow, too (in the form of future sales of the retained inventory at prices above the low compound interest bar).
All else being equal, when market interest rates inevitably rise, this will shift the calculation towards current sales. But in the meantime, No Sale is the name of the game.
Logical Extreme: No Sale
I don’t think this application of Hotelling’s Rule is a better explanation than the Liv-Ex analysis or inconsistent with it, but it does open up a different way of thinking — looking at the situation in terms of the present value of the income stream.
It is possible to take this way of thinking too far, however, which is what New York Times columnist Frank Bruni hilariously did earlier this year when he wrote an “April Fools” column about college admissions. He announced that Stanford University had taken selective admissions to its logical extreme … and admitted zero percent of its applicants!
Because it was now totally unattainable, Bruni reported, Stanford was even more ardently desired than before and admission applications and strategic financial donations poured in. In Bruni’s fictional world, zero admission “sales” maximized Stanford’s reputation and revenue stream. Wow!
I wonder if that would work with wine? Whatever you do, don’t let the folks at Lafite, Latour and Margaux read Bruni’s column.