all about fine wine funds and auctions

In this latest piece we look at the emergence of new actors in fine wine markets, by way of wine funds and the increased prominence of fine wine auctions.

In a series of questions and answers Ella Lister, the Auctions and Secondary Market Correspondent for the World of Fine Wine Magazine (WFW) provides critical insight.

New routes to market for the collector and investor

Until James Miles, Director of Liv-ex (the London International Vintners Exchange), put a figure to it at the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirits fair, estimates of the value of the world-wide fine wine market saw swings by as much as 100%. The figure Miles arrived to was $4 billion and one that has been referred to since. As Miles pointed out, this is composed of merchants (90%) and auction houses (10%), but not other actors, such as wine funds or financial entities holding wine as an investment.

Importantly, private collectors and investors, with whom most stock resides and who may freely sell or broker their wines independently, are not included within this figure. Thus, the real value of the fine and rare wine market must be significantly higher.

In the 10 years since the trading platform began, the fine wine market has changed dramatically, to the point where fine wine is well on the way to being accepted as a credible alternative investment. The 2008 decision by the Hong Kong government to go from a closed to open market, by reducing its 50% tariff on wine to zero overnight, ushered in startling expansion and is the most disruptive event since the entrance of the US market in the 1970s or the arrival of the internet and transparency.

The historic fine wine trade structure – centred on the traditional merchant, collectors and auction houses – has changed too. London fine wine merchants successfully established broking divisions in the expansive environment of the early to mid-1990s, which saw Asian buyers enter for the first time. Trading platforms, led by Liv-ex, and price tools like wine-searcher.com followed and have brought transparency to a hitherto remarkably opaque market place.

We may not have given it due attention at the time, but this marked the first meaningful step in the little-by-little sophistication of fine wine markets. New actors – professionally managed wine funds and a freshly dynamic auction scene among them – mean there are now new routes to enter and exit the market for the private collector and investor.

A common feature of fast-growing, but immature markets is that a rush of new money can push up value beyond the line supported by the fundamentals. Moreover, where will this new capital go in the event of a stabilisation of stock markets; will it remain in fine wine or will it return to the traditional fold?

How important are these newly empowered actors to today’s fine wine markets?

Certainly, hammer prices and fund headlines suggest increasingly so. The former is a leading indicator of sentiment, albeit for the irrational luxury market, so important to that essential ingredient of economic prosperity, confidence. The latter? Well, we don’t know exactly. A large part of the challenge with wine funds is that, behind the headlines, facts would seem to be hard to come by. Yet, understanding the role of these new actors matters. Accurate and transparent figures, traceability and the human face are a pre-condition to the fine wine market taking the next step and becoming a mature and accepted form of investment as well as pleasure.

fine wine auction

Wine funds and fine wine auctions – behind the headlines with Ella Lister

DWT How important are fine wine auctions and wine funds to today’s fine wine market?

EL The wine auction market steals the headlines but represents no more than ten per cent of global fine wine revenues, at almost $400 million annually in 2010. Similarly, wine funds are on everybody’s lips, but total assets under management are no more than $400 million, and probably nearer to $300 million.

DWT Are fine wine auctions a good route to market for the private collector/investor?

EL They can be very lucrative, but the seller has less control over the final price, as you have to commit stock months before the actual sale, and auction houses will restrict the reserve price you can apply. Hence some wine funds steer clear of this riskier route to market.

DWT What is the current growth trend among auction houses and what is their regional spread?

EL The auction market is growing fast, but probably not considerably faster than the overall fine wine market. Revenue in the first three quarters of 2011 was up 44 per cent on the same period in 2010. Hong Kong now represents just over 50 per cent of global wine auction revenues.

DWT There has been a lot of talk about new funds being set up. Is this true or exaggerated? What is their impact and is this sustainable?

EL There has certainly been a flurry of announcements in 2010 and 2011, but the actual level of success is so far unclear. For example, Société Générale and Bordeaux Index have both announced funds that have yet to materialise. Despite bold aims to raise RMB 1 billion in its original statement in August, the much talked-about DeRouge fund has made no further noise. We don’t know whether it has succeeded in raising its initial target tranche of RMB 200 million.

DWT Do wine funds buy en primeur?

EL Some do; some don’t – see my series on funds in the WFW.

DWT Would buying into a fund outperform purchasing a basket as represented by the Liv-ex Investable index?

EL It’s likely to be a similar basket! You would like to think that the fund manager’s expertise and careful ongoing analysis would yield higher returns, but this is not always the case.

DWT Fast forward five years: what are your predictions?

EL Wine funds will continue to play a key role in the fine wine industry, as investors look increasingly to tangible assets. However, the limited size of the fine wine market means that it’s hard to imagine fine wine becoming a major investable commodity on a par with gold or even fine art. After all, the most expensive case of wine is nothing compared to the most expensive painting. The market will continue to become more sophisticated and transparent, but in five, or even ten years’ time, it still won’t be ready for large-scale investments or complex financial products. It is a niche investment product, best kept in the realm of the tangible.

The final instalment of Ella Lister’s three-part work, examining the pros and cons of funds vs. DIY wine investment, is in issue 34 of the World of Fine Wine Magazine, out now.

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