Wine and the No-Recession Recession

Are we headed for a recession here in the United States? Or are we already there? What about the future — the second half of 2022 and 2023?

If you follow economic news reports you have encountered all sorts of answers to these questions. And you can be forgiven for being a little confused and maybe quite a lot frustrated that the answers to these important questions are not clearer.  Herewith a brief guide for the perplexed with implications for the wine sector.

The Recession Question

The “rule-of-thumb” definition of a recession is when there are two consecutive quarters of falling gross domestic product (GDP). The U.S. economy is in a recession now by this definition because GDP fell in both the first and second quarters of 2022 (second quarter data subject to revision). By this measure, many of the world’s most important economies are either in recession, too, or teetering on the brink.

The two-quarter rule is very useful, but it is not the final world. The National Bureau on Economic Research (NBER) more formally defines a recession in a way that stresses depth, diffusion, and duration:  a recession is a significant decline in economic activity that is spread across the economy and lasts more than a few months.

The NBER’s more nuanced definition is better than the two-quarter rule, but it has some downsides. How significant is significant, for example? And how widely spread need the decline be? There is also the problem, unavoidable with lagged economic indicators, that a recession can only be declared well after it has started and will probably be over before the conclusion is called.

So we might be in a recession now — one that started months ago in fact — or we might not. We will only know for sure later on — perhaps when the recession (if there is one) is already over. Argggh!

Up, Down, Twist

If you follow business and finance news you will find evidence to back up any hypothesis you may have about a recession. Prices in some sectors are rising quickly (have you bought a airline ticket recently?) and plunging steeply in other areas.

There are plenty of stories of firms with squeezed profits, declining sales, and employee lay-offs. But there are also stories about rising sales and profits and, of course, the labor market puzzle, where the number of unfilled positions is about twice the number of people who say they are looking for work (but apparently cannot find it).

Last week’s job report was unexpectedly strong — the unemployment rate is only 3.5% and total employment is back to the pre-pandemic level — suggesting that the U.S. is not currently in recession, despite what the GDP figures say. Ironically, some analysts speculate that this good jobs news actually increases the odds of bad news in the near future. The reasoning is that the Federal Reserve will be forced to raise interest rates even higher now in order to slow control demand-driven inflationary pressures.

What’s the story? Is the economy up or down? The correct answer (which applies to wine, too) is … yes. If you are looking for a generalized answer to the recession question you won’t find it. Maybe it is best to say that the economy is twisting. The devil is in the details here and the answer you get depends upon where you look and how.

The Price is Right?

There are several reasons for this complicated picture. One of them is that the economy — like the wine market — is never all one way or another. Like the climate, it is always running hotter in some areas and colder elsewhere.

But another, particular to this moment, is the fact of rapid inflation because an inflationary economy works by different rules. In an economic system with stable prices, consumers cut back purchases when employment falls or when there is fear of unemployment. In an inflationary economy, the pressure to cut back spending affects a much broader set of consumers who find their budget squeezed by rising prices of necessities. Higher energy and housing prices (although moderating somewhat in recent weeks) have put the squeeze on millions of households regardless of job market status.

And so that’s what we are seeing now. So maybe the recession question isn’t the right one to be asking.

The Squeeze: A Tale of Two Worlds?

The conventional wisdom is that wine is recession-proof. Maybe. But an inflationary squeeze and the twist it creates is different and I don’t see how wine sales can escape unscathed.

Under these circumstances it is more important than ever to know your customers and the product chain that connects them with your business. Based on recent quarterly reports, for example, it looks like selling wine into mass market Walmart World’s part of the retail spectrum, where both the retailer and its clients seem to be really feeling the squeeze — is much different from selling wine into high income Costco World, where the squeeze is still on but the impact seems more moderate. So far.

The Big Squeeze: Stagflation and Shrinking Wine Margins

Sue and I are in Santa Rosa this week where I will be speaking to a meeting of Allied Grape Growers, a 500-member grape grower marketing association that sells more than $100 million worth of grapes each year. I am looking forward to learning as much as I can from the growers about what they are seeing in the grape markets today and how they plan to react.

Optimists and Pessimists

There are two schools of thought about what is happening to the economy, both here in the US and around the world. One school holds that we will soon face the most serious case of stagflation — inflation with slow or no growth– that we’ve seen in 40 years. These are the optimists!

The opposing school — call them pessimists or realists — holds that stagflation is already here (have you seen some corporate earnings reports?) but maybe we just don’t fully appreciate it yet. And it will get worse before it gets better.

Either way the near future promises to present challenges to everyone in the wine product chain with costs rising, consumer budgets getting squeezed, and a strong dollar disrupting international trade flows.

Waiting for Wine Prices to Rise

So far wine prices have not risen as fast as consumer prices generally, which have been up more than 8% on an annual basis in recent months. Wine prices (and beer prices, too) have risen less than half that, which means they have fallen in real (inflation adjusted) terms.

A recent Wine Economist column tried to think through what might happen (and why) if wine prices do eventually start to increase. But I am having real doubts that this will happen generally. Some wineries and retailers are likely to be able to raise price, but I am not so sure about the broader market.

The “Stag” in Stagflation

Why? Well, because this isn’t inflation that we are looking at, it is stagflation and distressed consumers (and the retailers who market to them) are likely to push back against price increases even more firmly than in the past. Yes, I know that premiumization has been one of the big trends on recently years, but premiumization is about buyers moving up to higher priced products, not paying more for the stuff they already buy. Rising wine prices? They still hate that.

Big box retailers like Walmart and Target are already feeling the squeeze as costs rise but prices don’t or don’t as much. Some reports suggest they are trying to protect margins by shifting even more to private label brands, for example. In any case the push back seems to be as strong as the cost push itself in many cases.

Retailers are feeling the squeeze. Will wine margins experience a big squeeze, too? That’s what I suggested in a presentation to the Wine Industry Leadership Conference. earlier this year and, with the ability to raise price in even more in question today, it seems to be a likely scenario.

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Here is a link to my presentation on “The Big Squeeze” on wine margins at the Wine Industry Leadership Conference in February 2022. My presentation begins at about minute 38 in the video.

 

Wine, Stagflation, and the Strong Dollar Syndrome

The U.S. dollar has surged in value on foreign exchange markets in the last year and especially the last few weeks, as this graph of the dollar versus the euro makes clear. It once took about $1.30 to purchase a euro, but some analysts believe that USD-EUR parity — a dollar per euro — is on the cards for later this year.

The story differs country-by-country, but the overall trend is clear. Just as in the 1980s, when the Federal Reserve tightened monetary policy to fight inflation, the dollar has soared on foreign exchange markets. Exchange rate movements are not generally either good or bad, they create winners and losers like any other change in price. But a sustained spike in the U.S. dollar can be a global problem. The strong dollar of the early 1980s created a global crisis that came to an end through the Plaza Accord, an international agreement to re-align exchange rates.

I don’t think the strong dollar syndrome will go away soon because, as I explain below, it is very useful to U.S. policymakers just now. It is too soon to know how this strong dollar episode will end, but not too soon to think about the implications in light of the 1980s experience, with special emphasis on the wine industry. Herewith three factors to consider.

Trade, the Dollar, and Wine

The conventional wisdom is that a strong currency encourages a country to import and discourages exports because each dollar (in this case) buys more foreign currency, and it takes more euro (for example) to buy a dollar. So it would seem like the super-strong dollar, by encouraging imports and discouraging exports,  would be counter-productive if you are interested in jump-starting growth. But there are other factors to consider (see next point below) and these are unusual circumstances.

International trade is all fouled up with logistics costs and bottlenecks, for one thing, and the pattern of trade in many commodities is distorted by covid closures in China and commodity trading shifts due to the Russia-Ukraine war. In other words, a strong dollar may have less impact on trade today than in other situations.

This is true in the wine trade as well. The strong dollar may push wine import prices down, but logistics issues and the impact of some protectionism policies pushes in the other direct. The exchange rate still matters a lot in the international wine trade, but other factors are more important right now. The dollar’s impact will be felt, however, if the strong dollar can be sustained (as it was in the 1980s).

Inflation, the Dollar, and Wine

The reason why the strong dollar is suddenly a stealth national economic policy is inflation. By making imports cheaper, a strong dollar puts a limit on the ability of domestic firms to raise prices. It is harder to raise the price for generic California wine if the price of imports is stable or declining. This is one factor (not the only one) that has kept U.S. wine prices from rising along with the overall inflation rate.

The strong dollar also makes imported production inputs cheaper for U.S. firms, a significant advantage in the global product chain.

For the Federal Reserve, a strong dollar means that they can be less aggressive in their domestic contractionary policies designed to squeeze inflation out of the economy. The dollar, by putting a limit on price increases through foreign competition, will do some of the dirty work for them.

Unintended Consequences

But not everyone will be happy with this situation. Our trading partners will be justified in their belief that the U.S. is exporting some of its inflation to them though higher prices for imports from the U.S. and other commodities that are priced in dollars rather than local currency. Their domestic firms will find it easier rather than harder to raise prices with the cost of imports rising, too.

There are also international debt issues to consider since many countries borrow (and must repay) in dollars. An increase in the dollar’s value can have more impact on debt servicing costs than a rise in interest rates, for example.

As a result of these unintended consequences there is now talk of a sort of inverted currency war. Usually currencies wars take the form of competitive devaluations, as everyone tries to have the cheapest currency to encourage exports.

Now, however, several factors but especially inflation is causing policy-makers to re-think this strategy and consider a sort of arms race to increase currency values. The instability that results from such a situation can be serious and lead to conflict, which is what produced the Plaza Accord in 1985.

And in the Long Run …

So the direct effects of the strong dollar syndrome are worth your consideration, but the indirect effects — the inflation lid, the international currency war, a potential debt crisis, etc. — are perhaps even more important.

In the long run, however, the impact on the U.S. wine industry is likely to be more severe both through the direct effects on input and domestic labor cost factors and through the classic Econ 101 impacts once the logistics issues have time to settle out.

But there is one more long term factor to take into account. As the Plaza Accord demonstrated, a very strong dollar is not sustainable from a global financial standpoint. When the market turns it is likely to be sudden. A soft landing can change abruptly. Buckle up.

Wine and Inflation: Will the Rising Tide Lift Wine’s Boat?

The U.S. is experiencing the highest inflation rates since the 1980s and cost-of-living increases are on everyone’s mind here and around the world. The Federal Reserve has signaled that it will speed up monetary tightening to try to reverse rising inflationary expectations — too little and too late, according to   the Economist newspaper (The Federal Reserve Has Made a Historic Mistake on Inflation).

I am very concerned about how higher inflation will impact the wine industry, especially when combined with a stagnant overall economy (GDP actually fell in the US in Q1/2022).

The Big Squeeze

Costs are increasing, some dramatically, throughout the wine and grape commodity chains and rising interest rate expenses will add to cost woes. The list of cost factors is long and includes energy, fertilizer, transportation, glass and other inputs, and especially labor, which remains in short supply.

Will growers and wineries be able to hold on to their margins by passing higher costs along to consumers in the form of higher prices? A lot of people I talk to think so. Surveys suggest that many wineries plan to raise prices in 2022 and there is an attitude that consumers might not push back too much, given that the price of everything else is rising, too.

So I am a little bit surprised that some of the data suggests that wine prices have not risen along with the prices of other goods — at least not yet.  Wine Business Monthly, for example, cites NielsenIQ data on average bottle prices. The May 2022 issue reported an average price of $8.52 for the most recent 4 week survey period, up from $8.18 reported in the May 2021 issue — an increase of 4.1  percent. Average domestic bottle price rose  from $8.12 to $8.46 and average import bottle prices rose from $8.35 to $8.69.

The Booze Bust

Prices are rising, according to these figures, but at about half the current rate of overall inflation. NielsenIQ doesn’t measure all sales channels, of course, and there is a lag in the data, so maybe prices are really rising faster than these numbers suggest and wine industry margins will hold.

But the IRI data shown above, taken from a recent Rabobank report about inflation and the beer market suggest that wine in particular and beverage alcohol in general is struggling to increase prices in line with rising costs. Take a close look at the top half of this table, which shows that some non-alcohol beverage categories have been able to boost price much faster than the roughly 8% general inflation rate for the U.S. economy — topped by sports drinks with an incredible 17%+ annual rate price increase. Wow!

Beer, wine, and spirits have all increased average prices, but much less than, say, coffee, and substantially below the overall inflation rates. In other words, the real price of wine, on average, has actually fallen in the last year and the relative price of wine with respect to some other beverage categories has fallen, too. Averages hide a lot, of course, and some strong brands have successfully pushed prices higher while others have not. But beverage alcohol generally, according to the Rabobank figures, has fallen behind in terms of price.

Why haven’t wine prices increases faster.? Here are a few of the many possible explanations.

  1. Radar’s Rule. Wine prices will increase — “wait for it,” as Radar used to say on M.A.S.H. — it just takes time for price changes to work their way through the system.  It is hard to refute this because it is impossible to know the future. Maybe there is something about wine’s annual production cycle that causes price changes to come more slowly. But then why do beer and spirits, which are in continuous production, also lag behind the inflation rankings?
  2. The Wall. Consumer pushback is too strong in the wine category for large price increases to take hold. Yes, I agree that wine buyers are very price sensitive, but prices do rise when they are driven by short supply. And of course there is the whole premiumization phenomenon, where consumers pay more for what they see as better products while resisting price rises on products they already buy.
  3. The Hidden Price Increase Trick. Candy bar makers sometimes try to disguise price increases by simply shrinking the size of the product. Wine makers can do something a bit like that by shifting grape sources from coastal to inland vineyards and in some cases by blending in wines from earlier vintages. Consumers may not notice (just as they might not immediately realize their candy snack has shrunk a little).  Wineries can also increase their average revenue by reducing production of lower-tier wines, shifting the grapes up the ladder.
  4. Three-tier Blues. It’s the three-tier system, where producers sell to distributors who sell to retailers who sell to consumers. On one hand this system means that there are three margins at stake and to each tier has an interest in raising the price at which it sells wine. But each tier also has an incentive to resist increases in its cost of goods. So distributors push back on producers who want to raise price, retailers push back on distributors, and consumers push back on retailers.  The three-tier effect may explain why the lowest average price increases in the Rabobank table above are for beer, wine, and spirits.

More Questions Than Answers

There are other theories and explanations about inflation and the wine category, but perhaps the most important thing to say is that, with the most recently experience of significant U.S. inflation so far back int he rearview mirror, we are left with more questions than answers.

All the basics — the who, what, when, where, how, and why of the wine market have changed very dramatically since the 1970s and 1980s.

Will wine prices rise in line with inflation? If so, when? And how will consumers react? Come back next week for more analysis.

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Thanks to Steve Fredricks at Turrentine Brokerage for stimulating my thinking on this topic.

Here Be Dragons: Wine and the Economy Enter Uncharted Waters

The International Monetary Fund is expected to announce today revised global economic forecasts –– slower growth, higher inflation, and increased uncertainty due to war in Ukraine plus (although I don’t know if it will feature in the IMF report) massive  covid lockdowns in China. Here be Dragons, indeed!

As much as we all would like to think that economic conditions and the global wine market will soon return to what we used to call “normal,” I think it is important to realize that we have actually entered what are in some ways uncharted waters. Old maps and rules of thumb do not necessarily apply and the ability to pivot quickly as conditions change is even more important than in the past.

Flashback to the 1980s

Sometimes I get to thinking that I’ve passed this point in life one time before. (That’s actually a line from a John Hartford song.) Way back in 1981 I wrote a college economics textbook because I couldn’t find a text that could help my university students understand what was happening to the economy.

The uncharted territory back them was stagflation — high inflation and high unemployment at the same time. The standard textbook analysis used Keynesian analysis to understand unemployment and the Phillips Curve to plot the trade-off between unemployment and inflation. Higher unemployment meant lower inflation. But we had both high inflation and high unemployment — how did that happen? And what could be done about it?

The problem (in very simple terms) was that inflation was caused by cost-push not demand-pull factors and had unleashed sustained self-fulfilling inflationary expectations.  The Volker solution was highly restrictive monetary policy that pushed unemployment even higher until the expectations broke. Harsh medicine for a vicious disease.

Zoom Ahead to 2022

Zoom ahead to 2002. After years of relatively stable or even falling price levels, inflation is here again at rates that haven’t been seen in the U.S. since the 1980s. The problem this time is a combination of cost-push and demand-pull factors. Higher energy, food, and transportation costs plus persistent shortages of key commodities push prices higher while the huge fiscal and monetary stimuli of the pandemic and post-financial crisis era have pulled inflation higher, too.

This is not a repeat of the 1980s, by any means, but also not like anything we’ve seen at this level in a very long time. I can’t remember seeing such a combination of broad forces aligned to boost demand and constrain supply.

The war in Ukraine adds to the inflationary pressure, especially with respect to energy and food prices, and it is hard to see these forces disappearing any time soon. Even if a truce were declared today, the energy and food price effects would continue for some time. The Chinese covid lockdowns are squeezing production of many manufactured goods at the same time.

Disruptions in global trade and finance are another factor to take into account. For a long time the “China Price Syndrome” kept a lid on prices of manufactured goods. If a company was tempted to raise price, the ready availability of cheaper alternatives from Asia and especially China acted as a constraint. The “China Price” served as a price anchor then, but much less so now because of unraveling trade relations.

Getting from QE to QT

Taken together this is a situation we haven’t really seen before, but the thing that really makes people like me nervous is monetary policy, The Federal Reserve will be responsible for squeezing inflation out of the economic system (just as it was in the 1980s), but financial conditions are different now. We have had very low interest rates for a long time now and wave after wave of quantitative easing (QE — Fed purchases of Treasury and mortgage-backed securities that pump liquidity into the markets). The markets have kind of become addicted to the constant monetary boost.

Raising interests from this very low level can be expected to disrupt financial markets if only because of the mathematical impact on present value calculations. Exchange rates will shift, too, with disproportionate impact of development market currencies.

But the real “uncharted waters” factor is the transition from QE to QT, quantitative tightening. This will initially take place as the Fed’s bond holdings mature and are not rolled over, which takes liquidity out of the market. It will start slow (which still means billions of dollars a month) and could pick up speed if necessary.

The question is how financial markets will deal with this change after having a liquidity drip line month after month for this long? There is nervous talk of another sharp liquidity crisis, but maybe bigger than the last one, which the Fed addressed quickly and well. If key credit markets freeze up and contagion takes place, the Fed will have little choice but to reverse course, opening the door to even higher inflation.

The alternative is a very hard landing as the impact of the financial crisis spreads through the economy. How hard a hard landing? It depends on what it would take to shift inflationary expectations. So you can see the concern — we may be perched on a narrow ledge with higher inflation on one side and financial crisis on the other.

What About Wine?

The wine economy operates by its own rules, but it can’t fully escape the forces shaping the economy in general. To repurpose something that is said about the pandemic economic, we aren’t all in the same boat, but we are in the same storm.

Wine has also experienced a combination of cost-push and demand-pull factors, but not uniformly for various categories. Demand-pull, for example, seems focused on more expensive wines. Cost-push is everywhere, however, which means that the crunch is felt particularly in the middle- and lower-price tiers.

Honestly, I cannot remember a time when cost pressures have been so broad and deep. To what extent will price-sensitive consumers push back on price increases? Or will the consumer inflation expectations in general soften attitudes towards rising wine prices? Given that these are uncharted waters, the map holds more questions than answers.

Gearing Up for the 2022 Unified Wine & Grape Symposium

The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium is North America’s largest wine industry gathering — a vast trade show and ambitious collection of seminars and presentations with something new and useful for every wine professional.

The 2020 Unified was the last in-person wine conference that Sue and I attended before the pandemic closures and protocols hit. So we are looking forward with more than the usual amount of excitement to the 2022 Unified, which is scheduled for January 25-27 in Sacramento.

Trade Show by the Numbers

Last year’s Unified was a virtual event and a very good one, but wine is a people business and nothing can fully replace the in-person experience. The two-day trade show will take place in the newly renovated SAFE Credit Union Convention Center on January 26 and 27. Covid protocols will be followed, of course.

You will find 760 booths and 40 large vineyard and winery machinery areas filled with just about everything anyone might need to grow grapes and make and sell wine. If you want to know what’s new, this is the place to find out.

If you haven’t been to the Unified before, you might enjoy reading New York Times wine expert Eric Asimov’s report on his visit to the trade show in 2017. It is interesting to see the event through Asimov’s critical eyes.

Problems and Opportunities

The 2022 conference program features an expanded three full days of meetings January 25-27. The typically ambitious agenda is organized around wine industry problems and opportunities as the Daily Schedule makes clear. There is a strong emphasis on positive take-aways — practical approaches to dealing with wine industry issues and information to help us all make sense of our changing world.

The wine world has changed dramatically in just a short period of time and the themes of this year’s program take this into account, with sessions on environmental shifts, smoke taint problems, new marketing directions, and attracting and retaining essential talent. Two sessions are in Spanish.

State of the Wine Industry

Once again this year I will be fronting the Wednesday morning “State of the Industry” session. I’ll set the stage by analyzing the changing wine market from a global perspective then the all-star line-up takes over: Danny Brager (changing consumer trends), Steve Fredricks (the supply side of the wine market), Mario Zepponi (investment trends, M&A activity), and Jeff Bitter (grower trends and issues).

Danny Brager returns to the podium at the session’s end to recognize wineries that were particularly successful navigating the wine dark seas in 2021. Lots of information and analysis packed into a 2-1/2 hour session.

I don’t have to tell you that 2021 has not been the easiest year for those of us in the wine industry, so look forward to honest, straightforward analysis with a focus on practical strategies as we move ahead into the uncertain future.

The Unified is back. See you there!

Wine Business Bottlenecks

Everyone in the wine business knows about the problem of bottlenecks — and I am not just talking about the kind you see in this photo. Bottlenecks or choke-points are found throughout the wine product chain and any one of them can make life difficult.

Wine’s Many Bottlenecks

Growing grapes can sometimes be a bottleneck since winegrowers get just one crop a year (apart from tropical viticulture, where multiple harvests are possible), so bad weather, smoke exposure, or labor supply problems can really mess things up. Wine production has its bottlenecks, too. Tank capacity is limited in the short run, for example, and after a couple of abundant harvests in a row there can be problems making new wine because there’s no place to put it.

Distribution is another bottleneck of the classic kind you see on the highway. Thousands of wine producers channel their products through a much smaller number of distributors — it’s like losing three lanes on a busy freeway! In my experience every industry tends to organize itself around its most severe bottleneck or inefficiency and here in the US distribution and the three tier system shapes much of the rest of the industry to a certain extent.

Logistical Bottlenecks

These days we are all coping with logistical bottlenecks. The old “just in time” system with hyper-efficient logistics has yielded to a “just in case” system, where we stock up on vital commodities when we can get them because bottleneck delays are so common. It is like the toilet paper situation at Costco on steroids.

I know a couple of wine importers, for example, that received the last of their French Rosé wines only in the last few weeks, just as the summer pink wine season was drawing to a close. The wines were caught in the international shipping bottleneck — not enough containers or port capacity to get product to market as per plan, plus of course higher cost. You know the story. Reports suggest that the ocean shipping problems that are in the news every day will not be resolved soon.

On a  trivial personal level, we waited an extra four days for a wine shipment from California that was stuck in the dreaded “Troutdale Triangle” near Portland. Don’t know if the bottleneck was driver availability, trailer space limits, or processing capacity. Maybe all three! At least the wine arrived in good shape. I suspect you have a similar story to tell and perhaps without the happy ending.

Rising Transportation Costs

The cost of shipping a container, when you can book space on a ship, has sky-rocketed. The Drewry World Container Index average cost has increased from less than $2000 per standard container in 2019 to more than $10,000 this summer! The actual cost depends on timing and the specific route desired — it is a supply and demand thing.

The rising ocean shipping costs have an uneven impact on product categories depending on the value of the goods involved. The higher rates have a relatively small impact on the final price of high-value goods such as electronics. But bulky, lower-value products can be hit pretty hard and there are stories circulated about items, such as cheap garden furniture from China, where the new shipping rates are higher than the value of the goods themselves.

Higher shipping rates act like a $8000 per container tax on imported wine, with the proportionate burden falling hardest on less-expensive wines. The higher cost combined with less dependable delivery schedules creates real problems for anyone with business interests in imported wine.

In the past such ocean shipping disruptions have been both smaller and relatively brief. The magnitude of this situation is unprecedented, however, and there are indications that higher costs will not as quickly disappear. Ocean shipping is a boom-bust industry. When ocean rates have been high as they are now, shipping companies have invested heavily in extra capacity that, when it came on-line all at once, pushed rates and profits down. The big shipping firms today intend to be conservative in their orders for new ships to prevent a collapse in rates a few years down the road.

The Big Bottleneck

The bottlenecks within the wine industry directly affect the wine trade, but they are not the only impacts to consider. Micro-bottlenecks within industries like wine aggregate into macro-bottleneck problems and risks that affect national and the global economy.

Come back next week for thoughts about how this big bottleneck issue might affect the economy overall and the implications for wine.

Global Wine Trade: Headwinds, Obstacles, Distortions

Wine has become one of the world’s most globalized consumer goods. The OIV estimates that 45% of all wine crosses at least one international border on its way from producer to consumer. And that’s just the finished product. If we examine the whole product chain, to include bottles, corks, and so forth, wine’s globalization index would be even higher.

So it is significant that wine today faces headwinds, obstacles, and distortions that make global wine a risky business. Taken together, these forces impact every part of the wine trade.

Headwinds

The covid pandemic has created new headwinds and magnified some existing ones that make global wine trade more difficult and uncertain. On-premise sales are critically important to some segments of the wine industry, for example, and the recovery from lockdowns  is slow, uneven, and uncertain. Bars and restaurants have struggled to refill to capacity in many cases, even where rules permit this, because of both uneven response by wary consumers and difficulty attracting and retaining service sector workers.

Many wineries invested time and effort into establishing alternative paths to market during the pandemic and now they must wonder whether direct-to-consumer and other strategies will continue to be as critical to success and what aspects of these efforts should be expanded in the future. There are a lot of puzzle pieces to put together as we move into the new normal and the picture that they create won’t be the same as it was pre-covid.

Obstacles

Wine globalization has been powered by favorable trade policies and efficient transportation logistics over the last 50 years, so it is significant that obstacles have appeared in both areas.  US tariffs, Chinese tariffs, Brexit uncertainty — the list of trade policy factors that create barriers to particular wine flows is much longer than in the past and some counties (Australia, I’m looking at you) have been hit particularly hard.

But an even bigger obstacle for wineries not directly affected by trade policy has been the breakdown of ocean shipping logistics, which moves bulk wine, packaged wine, and intermediate goods such as bottles and corks. A world-wide shortage of shipping containers is to blame and big increases in the costs of shipping a container is one result. Port congestion, which adds extra days or even weeks and much uncertainty to shipping schedules, is an unwelcome side effect.

Distortions

Finally, foreign exchange rates have introduced or magnified distortions in the relative prices of wine on international markets. The graph above shows how the US dollar (USD) has fallen relative to the Euro in the pandemic period.  The dollar has recovered a bit of its value recently, but it is hard to know if this rise can be sustained. In general, a falling currency encourages exports and discourages imports. The impact on US wine exports has been muted, however, by the several factors noted above including especially demand-squelching pandemic lockdowns in target markets.

The dollar’s fall came as a bit of a surprise, as I noted in a column about a year ago.  Now there is another surprise. The Economist newspaper reports that the dollar is still over-valued by over 10 percent against the Euro!

The Economist released its most recent Big Mac Index report last week, which uses international fast food  hamburger price differences to estimate the relative purchasing power of various currencies. This might sound like a foolish exercise, but the Big Mac Index has a pretty good track record as a general indicator of over- or under-valued currencies.

The June 2021 Big Mac Index finds only four currencies over-valued relative to the USD, so the currency distortion would favor US wine export sales. Significantly, Sweden (+9.6%) and Norway (+11.5%) are in this group and they are both importanr potential export markets for US wine.

The list of currencies that are under-valued compared to the USD is long and includes a number of significant wine producing countries that gain an advantage from the exchange rate mis-alignment.

  • Euro area -11.1%
  • Australia -15.2%
  • New Zealand -15.7%
  • Argentina -30.2%
  • Chile -30.3%
  • China -38.3%
  • Moldova -48.8%
  • Romania -55.5%
  • South Africa -59.6%

Several of these countries are important wine exporters and so their under-valued currencies give them a cost advantage in competition for US sales. Global wine has always been a tough business. The current combination of these headwinds, obstacles, and distortions make the global wine trade particularly challenging as we head into the fall.

2021 Wine Scenarios: Good, Bad, or Ugly?

What will the wine world look like a year from now?  Will our assessment of 2021 be good, bad, or ugly? Last week’s Wine Economist column briefly explored a “Roaring Twenties” scenario that is making the rounds both for wine and for the economy generally.

The Roaring Twenties theory holds that the pandemic has created pent-up demand for all the things that we’ve had to sacrifice in the last year but that will soon become available again. Parties and celebrations. Gatherings in bars and restaurants. Travel and tourism. They won’t all necessarily come roaring back at once, but the rebound will be substantial and be fueled by a corresponding rebound in economic activity.

The Roaring Twenties scenario is what I call a “ceteris paribus” (holding all else constant) theory. That is, it assumes that pretty much everything remains the same except that the covid vaccine lets people come out and play. With interest rates pegged near zero, fiscal stimulus doubling-down, and financial markets soaring, the good times will surely roll, or at least that’s what some hope and others firmly believe.

The Wheel’s Still in Spin

But it is important to keep in mind that a lot of positive events have to line up all at once for this to happen. I was reminded of this by the cover of The Economist newspaper’s The World in 2021 issue, which features a casino slot machine device (and not a crystal ball) as its symbol. The future isn’t written and waiting to be perceived is the message here. There is a lot of risk and uncertainty ahead.

The future, whatever it turns out to be, won’t be just one thing. It will be the combination of what happens on the politics wheel, the economics wheel, the public health wheel, the environment wheel, and so on. Our experience in 2020 shows that these wheels can sometimes align in terrible ways — think pandemic, recession, wildfires, and social and political unrest. There is even the chance of problems in one area cascading through the system in a vicious cycle.

We might feel we deserve the happy flip-side of things in 2021, but the odds of a golden Goldilocks outcome are longer than we’d like. We should  anticipate problems as well as potential good times. Not trying to be unnecessarily gloomy — just realistic.

To simplify, let’s imagine that 2021 depends on four variables or spinning wheels: public health, economy, politics, and the possibility of “black swan” wild card events Clearly there are many different possibilities for public health.  The hope for very fast roll out of vaccines is no longer realistic, although there is a sense that officials are learning quickly about troublesome bottlenecks. Fingers crossed …

Attention is focused on vaccines, but the virus surge continues in many regions with record case counts and deaths. It isn’t clear how quickly vaccination can overcome community spread and whether this third infection round is the last or will be followed by more surges or echoes of this one into the future.

Spinning the Economic Wheel

Clearly a lot is riding on where the public health wheel settles, especially for the travel and hospitality sectors, which are economically important both in general and for the wine industry. Then there is the economy wheel. to consider.

The relatively strong economic recovery in the United States is built on heroic levels of government support, which will end at some point, but when? Will monetary authorities hold their nerve and keep the spigots open as the economy begins to open? Will fiscal stimulus continue to preserve incomes and employment? What about the high levels of debt that corporations and governments have taken on?

This will depend to a certain extent on politics. Each of the major economies is currently experiencing its own unique brand of political instability or crisis. It is easy to imagine scenarios where political crisis in one country creates contagious economic or social problems elsewhere. Here in the United States there is widespread disagreement about what a good political result would look like. Many observers, for example, were happy when it looked like Republicans would control the Senate and gridlock would prevail. Gridlock, to this way of thinking, would mean that only the most moderate policy actions would prevail.

The Curse of the Black Swan

Now, with Democrats in the White House and majorities in the House and Senate, more aggressive policies are possible, at least in theory. Is this good or bad? Opinions vary according to political persuasion and the particular programs considered. So you can see that ceteris is unlikely to be paribus in 2021. And that doesn’t take into account any “black swan” wild cards that might be on the deck.

A Black Swan event is something with very low (but not zero) probability, but very high impact. The covid pandemic of 2020 is a good example of a Black Swan event. The possibility of a global pandemic, originating in Asia and spreading through international travel vectors has been known for some time. Indeed several of my university students studied the situation in the aftermath of earlier Asian pandemics and a number of government- and non-government agencies worked on detailed response plans.

It seemed pretty clear that there would be a problem eventually, but the particular path and specific consequences were not clear. Looking back it appears that countries that had previously experienced such a pandemic took the possibility more seriously and acted more decisively than others did. In any case, the low-probability event happened and the cost has been very high.

Black Swan Inflation

Inflation is the Black Swan event I most worry about for 2021. (Although I am not sure which kind of inflation — see Neil Irwin’s recent New York Times column.)  Most economists acknowledge that there is a chance of an inflation spike is 2021 or 2022, but most assign a very low probability to the threat. Nothing to worry about. And probably they are right. However …

Literally trillions of dollars (and other currencies) have been pumped into the global economy recently and so far inflation in general has remained very low  Governments and businesses have borrowed enormous sums at the resulting low or even negative interest rates. A resurgence of inflation would push interest rates higher and alter dramatically the economic landscape.

In a way, an inflationary surge would make the covid pandemic crisis a bit like the oil crisis of the 1970s. The initial impact of the oil crisis was harshly disruptive, but the long term effects, including both high inflation and the draconian policies needed to contain it, were challenging, too, and cast a long shadow over global events.

Good, Bad, or Ugly?

So you can see that the Roaring Twenties is just one of many possible economic scenarios and, even if it comes to pass as many hope, there are still many possible pathways and denouements. Good, bad, or ugly? Too soon to tell.

I know that some people believe that wine is immune to economic cycles, but wine businesses are businesses with debts, interest payments, counter-party risks, and so on. What happens to the economy happens to all of us in one way or another and it is wise to think about the possibilities.

Times are changing and perhaps that’s as much as we can confidently predict. This kind reminds me of an old Bob Dylan song. Listen up!

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Wine 2021: The Good News is the Bad News Could Be Much Worse

Australia’s export dilemma.

As the door to 2021 slowly swings open, the landscape looks both familiar and transformed at the same time. When the U.S. wine industry entered 2020, for example, the problems seemed to be stagnant demand on one side and excess wine grape supply on the other. Not a good situation for the world’s largest wine market, but not something beyond our ability manage, either.

Those problems are still with us, although they’re a bit lost in the fog. Structural wine production capacity is still too large, but this is disguised a bit by a smaller 2020 harvest in California and widespread smoke damage, which took some grapes off the market.

Overall wine demand is still under-performing, too, but that is hard to gauge exactly because of the way that wine channels have been disrupted by the covid pandemic in general and bar/restaurant restrictions in particular.  Consumers are buying much more through retail channels, a good deal more direct-to-consumer and much less in the on-trade. Whatever the net impact, which seems to be negative, the effects on individual wineries in particular sales channels is significant.

The Unified Sine & Grape Symposium‘s “State of the Industry” session is about two weeks away so those of us on the panel are working to put our thoughts about 2021 in order. Here are some of my working notes. The theme here is that, while there is plenty of bad news going into 2021, if you take an international perspective on the U.S. situation, it quickly becomes clear that things could be much worse. If that sounds like a “glass half full” perspective, well it is.

Take the loss of on-premise sales.  These lost sales are costly indeed, but producers in Europe had it much worse because they depend much more on bar and restaurant sales. No wonder their industries are hurting to badly and that crisis distillation is back in some E.U. countries.

Unlucky Australia

If people in the U.S. wine industry are looking for something to be thankful for, they might consider how lucky they are not to be Australia. The U.S. industry has been caught in the trade war crossfire to be sure. Importers and distributors have been hit by U.S. tariffs on many European wines, for example, and China has imposed tariffs on the relatively small amount of U.S. wine sold there.

As if matters weren’t bad enough, the U.S. recently imposed 25% tariffs on French and German still wines above 14% abv, which had been spared in earlier rounds of the trade wars. U.S. firms that import, distribute, or sell these wines are collateral damage in the bigger trade fight, which has nothing to do with wine. These are daunting challenges, to be sure, but nothing in comparison to what Australia is experiencing.

The Australian wine industry invested heavily in opening the door to the Chinese market and moving up-market once inside. And they were remarkably successful. As you can see above in data from Wine Australia, China was by far Australia’s largest export market by revenue in 2019, accounting for $1.3 billion of the $2.9 billion of wine exports. China bought almost three times as much as the #2 export market, the United States.

Australian wine is #1 in China, too, measured by value. Australia overtook France in the Chinese sales league table in 2019.

This was good news for Australian producers back with economic relations with China were happy ones, but now a variety of tensions exist and China was imposed up to 212% tariffs on Australian wine. I don’t know if sales will go to zero immediately, but that is a lot of tariff to absorb. Although anti-dumping measures are cited in this case, the real conflict is elsewhere. Economist have long held that anti-dumping tariffs, ostensibly designed to deal with damage from predatory pricing, are often subject to political abuse.

Australian producers hope to be able to divert previously China-bound production to other Asian markets and some of it may end up in the  U.S. and U.K., too. But realistically there is just too much wine for these markets to absorb and margins in the pivot markets are unlikely to match those in China.

But things could be even worse. What if Australia was even more dependent on Chinese market? The turn of the political screw would be even more painful then. And that is what happened in the past to Moldova and to Georgia when their biggest wine export market, Russia, decided to use wine as political tool.

The Good News is That the Dollar is in the Dumpster

You can find another good news story by looking at the foreign exchange markets.  Typically when there is any kind of crisis around the world there is a rush to the security (and liquidity) of the U.S. dollar. Uncertainty drives the dollar in turbulent times. Or at least that’s what we thought.

A strong dollar translates into cheaper imports, which would not have helped in any way restore domestic balance in the U.S. wine market. A strong dollar isn’t the worst thing for domestic producers, but the negatives outweigh the positives for many firms.

As I noted in a Wine Economist column back in August, this crisis is different and the dollar didn’t soar, it plunged as this graph (above), which shows the dollar versus the euro, indicates. And then, after bouncing around for a while, it plunged again.

Now this is bad news for consumers who want to buy imported wine because a cheap dollar buys less on international markets, so European wines, many already subject to U.S. tariffs, are even more expensive. But it is good news for U.S. wine producers who compete against euro-priced imports. The cheap dollar gives them a cost advantage in the domestic market. There is also a theoretical advantage in export markets, but honestly those markets are pretty congested right now with lots of unsold wine (some of it from Australia) looking for a home.

But foreign exchange news isn’t completely sunny for U.S. wine because the dollar isn’t falling against all currencies. As this graph shows, the Argentina peso is even weaker, so the U.S. dollar steadily increased in relative terms, making wine from Argentina a fierce competitor where price is the key factor, especially bulk wine trade.

Economics is often called the dismal science and these examples of good news have a decidedly glass-half-empty feel. Stay tuned for glass-half-full analysis in coming weeks.