In my other life as an economics professor I studied financial crises and their implications (one of my academic books, which seems eerily relevant today, was called Mountains of Debt). One thing that I learned about the financial sector is that crises are generally followed by periods of consolidation.
Smaller, more fragile banks and investment firms fail or fall into the hands of larger firms (sometimes the big ones fail too as the Washington Mutual collapse of a few years ago reminds us). Eventually new community banks appear to fill the gaps that the bulked-up big banks leave behind.
Banks and Wine: No Joke
How are banking cycles related to the wine industry in the current coronavirus crisis? Well there is a joke that the only person crazier than a winery owner is her banker. But no one is laughing at jokes like that these days.
There is a serious connection. A recent Wine Business Monthly report suggests that the American wine industry looks a lot like the American finance industry and that a coronavirus recession shake-out is likely to lead to a wave of consolidation.
Only 56 out of the more than 10,000 U.S. wineries are really really large, producing more than 500,000 cases per year. These are the JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs of the American wine scene. Another 246 wineries are very large, producing between 50,000 and 500,000 cases annually. Taken together, this small number of wine producers accounts for most of the wine produced and consumed.
The Bottom of the Pyramid
At the other end of the scale are 2773 wineries that make between 1000 and 5000 cases a year and an incredible 6420 wineries that produce less than a thousand cases. These are the community banks of the wine world and they are the most dependent on direct sales including especially tasting room sales. They are, therefore, the most vulnerable today. About half the estimated $5.94 billion wine industry loss due to the crisis comes from lost cellar door sales.
And they are the most likely to experience severe economic distress that might result in sale or closure. Even before the crisis a surprisingly large number of wineries were quietly on the market for the right price. The recession will push that trend to the fore.
The WBM report notes that
Ninety-seven percent (97%) of all U.S. wineries produce less than 50,000 cases and are estimated to experience annual revenue losses of between 36% to 66% with smaller wineries most impacted. Projected losses increase as winery size decreases with wineries producing 1,000 to 5,000 cases expected to see lost revenue of 47.5% and wineries producing under 1,000 cases or less expected to lose 66% of revenue.
Just as some community banks manage to come out of a financial crisis in a stronger competitive position, some smaller wineries will emerge in relatively better shape, too. It is inspiring to see the effort that is going into customer relations and marketing to make up for the lack on in-person contact. I am sure that there are lessons learned now that we be valuable when the tasting rooms open again somewhere down the road.
3-Tier versus Two Speed
Some states have relaxed their direct-to-consumer shipping regulations, which benefits all wineries but will be especially important to small ones. Wine Curmudgeon speculates that this might be the start of important changes to the three tier distribution system that would open up the wine market. That would be a big benefit for the bottom of the wine pyramid.
But at the same time it seems likely that consolidation in the wine sector will be accompanied by similar trends in distribution and for the same basic reasons. Although much is lost in generalization, there is a tendency for larger distributors to focus their value chain on bigger retailers and larger wine producers. Scale matches scale matches scale. This pattern magnifies an on-going movement to a two-speed wine market with those in the middle range (both domestic and imports) squeezed in the process.
Here is a link to the Wine Economist’s coverage of the coronavirus recession. All of the most important factors affecting the wine economy remain unknown: how deep will the recession be, how long will it last, when will the economy be open, how soon (if at all) will consumers return to previous patterns? Add to the list the question of how long will it take people to drink up all that wine and spirits they piled into their shopping carts in March? Gosh, I hope they didn’t drink it all at once!
Big “W” Recession Threat
There is so much uncertainty at present that prediction is impossible, but these are some directions that seem likely given current trade winds. It appears increasingly likely, for example, that the “shape” of the coronavirus recession will be W (a very big W in this case) and not V or U (see this previous Wine Economist column about recession shapes).
Many forecasts assume a V-shaped recession, with a short sharp economic fall followed by a quick and decisive recovery. That would be the best case scenario and there are some early indications that that might be what’s happening in China.
But there is a significant threat that a second recession will strike just as the economy is recovering from the first. The second dip could come if another wave of coronavirus strikes and large parts of the economy need to be locked down again — this is the concern being expressed about China at the moment. Many experts seem to assume a second virus wave, but are uncertain about its impact.
But coronavirus 2 isn’t the only threat. Economists are increasingly concerned that the first virus recession will be followed by a financial crisis as all the missed payments and bad loans come due. There is a lot of credit risk right now, especially counter-party risk, which is the possibility that the trustworthy firm that owes you money might fail, bringing you down, because the people who owe it money can’t pay.
In wine terms, that’s what happens when your distributor can’t pay because its restaurant clients can’t pay. A credit collapse would likely speed consolidation in both the winery and distribution sectors.
Many state and local governments have played constructive roles in the current crisis, but they might unintentionally end up contributing to the W recession scenario. Many state-locals are constitutionally restricted from running budget deficits or borrowing except for capital projects like roads, bridges, and school buildings. The first recession wave will drive down their revenues, forcing them to cut back on spending and employment. That would make the second recession wave even worse.
None of this is set in stone. Truly heroic economic stimulus (helicopter money drops, fiscal bazooka blasts) has been deployed with more to come. This would be more than enough to deal with economic problems in normal times. But these times are not normal and the head of the IMF said last week that she’s concerned the global recession will be even worse than currently envisioned. Buckle up.
Do you recognize the big W in the photo above? It is the from the classic 1963 Stanley Kramer film “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”