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Forget your Richard James suit, Jules Audemars watch and Louis Vuitton man-bag. This season’s must-have accessories for the well-dressed millionaire are a hair shirt and a conscience – or so I am told.
Bank chief executives have been tripping over themselves in their rush to clamber out of the bonus pool.
Back in February, Lloyds TSB boss Eric Daniels walked away from his £2.33m ($3.5m) bonus, Royal Bank of Scotland’s Stephen Hester refused his £1.6m payout and Bob Diamond waived payments worth up to two-and-a-half times his £1m salary. Even on Wall Street, Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein and JPMorgan’s Jamie Dimon agreed to take their respective $9m and $17m bonuses in deferred shares.
What is more, in the months prior to this self-denial, wealthy individuals appeared to be prioritising charitable giving over luxury spending.
Research carried out in late 2009 by Family Bhive, a social media website for people with net wealth in excess of £5m, found 77 per cent of its 600 members considered philanthropy to be “an important part of their lives” – with nearly two out of three saying they would give away more if taxation were reduced.
According to the research: “Gone are the days of conspicuous consumerism as the ultra-high-net-worth community shifts its focus to embrace philanthropic projects.”
Part of this shift was apparent in last year’s Merrill Lynch Cap Gemini World Wealth Report. It found 43 per cent of people with investable assets of more than $1m were reducing their spending on luxury consumables – a proportion that rose to 60 per cent on Wall Street and main-street US.
Weaker demand was reported for luxury cars, yachts and jets, as well as for designer handbags, shoes, clothes, art and jewellery. Bain & Co, the consulting and business strategy firm, estimated sales of luxury goods dropped “as much as 20 per cent” in six months last year, and forecast that the luxury sector “would head into recession”.
“It shows ultra-high-net-worth individuals would prefer to cut down on luxury spending to maintain philanthropy, following on from the credit crunch,” said Caroline Garnham, founder of Family Bhive.
However, the supposition seems to be based on a question as loaded as its respondents. By asking 600 millionaires if philanthropy is “an important part of their lives”, the survey has arguably only succeeded in proving 23 per cent are surprisingly honest.
Three indicators also suggest the shift to philanthropy may be reversing.
Luxury spending is back. Days after the bank bosses tore up their cheques, I was asked to join the “private jet-set elite” at an aircraft marketing event. I was also reassured by yacht dealmakers Bargate Murray that “the market for top-end super-yachts – say, over £60m – remains firm”.
Already, luxury prices are rising again. Fredrik Nerbrand of HSBC Private Bank has pointed out that Forbes’ Cost of Living Extremely Well Index was outpacing a consumer price index basket by 2.5 per cent at the end of 2009. He noted: “Clients’ risk appetite and spending preferences tend to go hand in hand. We see the same level of confidence coming out of the luxury goods sector. This trend is set to persist.”
Investing in luxury goods is back, too – and prices are rising. In an update to investors in February, Scilla Huang Sun, fund manager of the Julius Baer Luxury Brands fund, reported a 44 per cent return in 2009, against a 27 per cent rise in the MSCI World Index – and better-than-expected sales of luxury goods in December.
Brands backed by the fund performed strongly, with sales at Richemont up 12 per cent in December, sales at Burberry up by the same amount over the last quarter of 2009 and Tiffany reporting 13 per cent sales growth for November and December.
China now accounts for 49 per cent of luxury market growth, according to Julius Baer. “The number of wealthy consumers from emerging markets, especially China, is growing fast. They are crazy for luxury brands,” said Huang Sun. But the price tags on the shares are not so high.
“Most luxury companies are in excellent financial shape ... attractive share price valuations do not reflect those strengths,” she added.
With a 6 per cent holding in budget-brand Swatch, the fund is certainly a more affordable luxury for bankers lacking £23,300 for an Audemars chronograph.