By BRETT ARENDS
It's been nine months since Occupy Wall Street first launched its campaign, but if the wealthy 1 percent is feeling any strain, it's doing a very good job of hiding it.
Sales of high fashion, luxury cars and other fancy baubles are booming. Porsche sales in the U.S. jumped nearly 15 percent last year. Herm s reported that its sales were up 26 percent. Imports of Swiss watches rocketed nearly 29 percent in the first three months of 2012. The world's biggest luxury-goods company, LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton -- which makes products ranging from luggage to champagne -- reported a terrific first quarter. These companies have left the overall economy in their wake.
"The sector has never been so strong in terms of sales growth," says Caroline Reyl, a French fund manager who specializes in luxury-goods stocks. For the past two years, she says, the sector's sales have been simply "fantastic" -- up 20 percent in 2011, on top of a 16 percent gain in 2010. If you're in the business of selling to the people who've never had it so good, you've never had it so good.
I've always been a big fan of luxury-goods companies as investments. The best, like LVMH and Compagnie Financiere Richemont, which owns Cartier, have a license to print money. Their brands have a mystique and fascination that lasts. It is impossible to walk down the thoroughfares of luxury, from Rodeo Drive to the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore, without feeling it. And they are living in a golden age. Since the market hit bottom three years ago, stock in Tiffany and LVMH has tripled, and Saks has more than quadrupled. How's your portfolio doing?
If you're in sympathy with the Occupy crowd, you should take a look at these stocks as a matter of principle. Why occupy Wall Street when you can just sell it something really, really expensive? The 1 percenters are suckers for a fancy label. When I write my book "Personal Finance for Anarchists" -- it's on my list -- luxury-goods stocks will have a whole chapter.
After all, who redistributes money from the wealthy more effectively than a top fashion house or jeweler? And the wealthy line up to pay. They bang on the doors to be let in. Robin Hood never had it so easy.
The good news is that today there are more luxury customers than ever before. There are two reasons for that. The first is the rise of the very wealthy here at home. Income distribution in America is now the most skewed it's been in at least 80 years, by some measures. Make of it what you will, but it seems to be a fact of life.
The second reason? China. Seventy percent of the growth in luxury sales last year came from consumers in emerging markets, says Reyl. And most of that came from Chinese consumers. For the first time in modern history, the Chinese buy more luxury goods than anyone else: They now account for 25 percent of the global market, edging out the Japanese. (A decade ago, the Chinese had just 2 percent of the market. Yes, the times they are a-changin'.)
You don't even have to go to China to see this. Chinese luxury buyers, like their Japanese counterparts, spend a lot when they travel. LVMH says non-European tourists accounted for half of all its European sales last quarter. The Chinese alone were responsible for 30 percent. No wonder sales at LVMH are defying the continent's economic crisis. On the contrary, a crisis in Europe may be good for luxury companies. It makes the euro cheaper.
Luxury-goods stocks have been absolutely superb investments for many years. If you'd invested $1,000 in Ford stock 20 years ago, you'd have about $2,300 today. Porsche? Try $28,000. The figure for Tiffany is about $15,000, and for many other luxury companies, it's in the same range.
But past stock performance is, famously, no guide to the future. A stock is only a claim on future cash flows. The more you pay, the worse the deal. Today, Tiffany and LVMH stock trades at about 20 times recent earnings. These valuations are not out of this world, but they are not cheap.
Reyl, who runs the Switzerland-based Pictet-Premium Brands fund, says investors are showing more interest in her fund these days, because the sector has done so well for several years. But the same phenomenon makes her cautious, and it should do the same for the rest of us. You want to buy low and sell high, not the other way around.
The good news for investors is that luxury-goods stocks are volatile. LVMH plunged 30 percent at one point last year. Tiffany fell more than 20 percent on four separate occasions. If you watch and wait, you may be able to get a deal. Buy on weakness. If you can buy in a panic, even better. The great luxury-goods companies are long-term assets. Good taste, as they say, never goes out of style.