Even the rich are feeling the squeeze
Filed under: Investing
For evidence of this, you only have to look at the performance of luxury goods companies. A recession is usually a rotten time for them, as consumers cut back on the bling, and stick to buying the basics.
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Not this time. Luxury goods companies have seen their sales and share prices soar. Until recently. Now it looks like the rich may finally be feeling the pinch as well.
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No chavs in China
Luxury brands such as Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Gucci, Chanel, Hennessy, Rolex, Moet & Chandon and Cartier can thank the emerging market consumer for their snazzy showing.
Many of them now generate up to 40% of their sales from emerging markets, especially China, where newly rich consumers have kept calm and carried on spending as before.
FTSE 100 fashion favourite Burberry has looked cool and comfortable on the global catwalk, and now earns more than 20% of its revenue from emerging markets, up from just 6% four years ago.
Suddenly, its slip is showing.
Out of fashion
As befitting a top fashion brand, it is rather a discreet slip. Burberry's first-quarter trading update showed its total revenues rising 11% to £408 million, up from £367 million in the same quarter last year.
Retail revenue, worth 70% of its business, grew 14% to £280 million. Sales didn't just grow strongly in Greater China, but the UK, France and Germany as well. Although they were weak in the US, Italy and South Korea.
But analysts demand a lot from their fashion houses; they had expected sales of £416 million. Burberry's share price tumbled nearly 6%, accelerating the steady decline of recent months. After touching £16 in mid-April, it now trades at under £12.
Although that's still a lot higher than the £2.75 they hit in 2009, in the slovenly depths of the credit crunch.
For whom the bellwether tolls
A large part of the fall was down to slowing sales in China. Stacey Cartwright, the company's finance director, said: "We've seen a slowdown in gift giving in China. That's small leather goods, cashmere scarves, but also trenchcoats. In China there is a political change later this year and we think some consumers are nervous about spending ahead of that change."
If luxury names are a bellwether for the emerging market consumer, that Chinese hard landing could be gathering pace. Maybe the rich aren't so different from us after all.
Burberry is still committed to its China expansion. It has key store openings in Hong Kong and Shanghai later this year, as well as London, Milan and Chicago.
But analysts have cut their earnings forecasts, on the assumption that consumer confidence will only worsen, both in China and the eurozone.
Burberry is also in a potentially expensive spat with perfume maker Interparfums, which owns the licence to make its Burberry Body perfume. It has threatened to cancel the agreement on 31 December, a move that will cost a cool £140 million. That looks like a lot of money to me, although markets didn't turn their noses up at the news.
So is this the end of the line for luxury?
Handbag makers Mulberry Group also disappointed analysts last month, delivering annual revenue of £168.5 million for the 12 months to the end of March, falling short of the £175.3 million analysts were hoping for.
That was still a dapper 38% leap in revenues, and a 54% increase in pre-tax profits to £36 million.
Like Burberry, Mulberry's share price has been full of swagger in recent years, rising an astonishing fivefold since January 2011, from £5 to £25 in April this year. They have since taken a handbagging, slumping to £12.76.
That's the problem with turning in a dazzling performance, markets expect more of the same, and are disappointed when they don't get it.
Fashion's hefty price tag
There's no need to panic and sell either of these shares. Both are financially sound companies that enjoyed strong profit growth in recent years (raising expectations perhaps a little too high). Both are investing in new factories. Both have a growing global reputation, with plenty of scope to extend their brand internationally.