© 2004 Bloomberg.com
The Rich Smell Inflation
Bloomberg.com, Feb. 9:
"It doesn't matter how bedecked in jewels they might be. Nor how much history is contained within their shells. A hundred million dollars would be a lot to pay for some eggs.
Unless, that is, you happen to be a Russian billionaire.
Last week, Viktor Vekselberg, one of Russia's richest men, bought the world's largest private collection of Faberge Imperial Easter Eggs from the family of Malcolm S. Forbes. The nine eggs were scheduled for auction at Sotheby's Holdings Inc. and were expected to fetch $70 million to $100 million. The actual sale price wasn't disclosed, but there were more likely to be nine, not eight, digits on the check. Even for buying in bulk, the Forbes family probably didn't want to give Vekselberg a discount.
An isolated individual with an exaggerated sense of national pride? That would be one plausible explanation. But it's also possible to see that purchase as part of a global trend that has been gathering force over the past 12 months. Right around the world, luxury alternative investments are going through a boom.
Eggs are just one example. The art business is going crazy. Vintage-car prices are rising. Diamonds are getting more expensive. Football clubs - a rougher, but equally precious, item - are turning into playthings for men whose egos are even bigger than their wallets. There are some clues there to what the rich are up to with their money. And there are some lessons as well about the state of the global economy.
What the rich are doing with their cash is always interesting, and not just for voyeurs of conspicuous consumption. The rich, pretty obviously, are smarter with money than most of us. Where they're investing now, the rest of the world may well be investing soon.
The boom in luxury investments tells us two things. The first is that there is a lot of spare cash floating around. Interest rates are low around the world, the global economy is recovering, and stock markets have been rallying. The rich are on a roll. But they may also be nervous about traditional, mainstream investments.
No doubt, a lot of their money is still going into stocks, bonds, hedge funds and private-equity deals. But a significant chunk of it is clearly being diverted to investments that are more entertaining, and may be more profitable as well. A trend of investing in luxury collectibles is a sign of nervous, not optimistic, times.
It suggests a fear that inflation may make a sudden return. If prices start surging globally, an oil painting may well be the best place to keep your cash parked. And it suggests that investors are worried that the returns from productive companies may turn out to be dismal. Luxury, trophy assets have a scarcity factor that make them valuable. The world is awash with mass-produced goods - and the rich may be signaling that there isn't much money to be made from such products.
A Faberge egg may not hold its value more than any other asset you buy. But at least it looks nice when you put it in a glass case, and you'll know that you took home a national treasure. And if the world heads for a period of high inflation and low growth - which is what this boom in luxury assets implies - it might turn out to be a good investment as well."
posted by Lily at 9:02 AM