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The View from the Watermark

By Andrew Davison 22 Nov, 2016
Watermark’s strategy is of course a perfectly formed combination of active trading and portfolio management but it is always interesting to check out the latest management reports from the various pure investment funds. Some are a little cagey about divulging much information and others tend to write nothing but vacuous variations on “the wine market will go up; if it is not going up now then it will soon”. To be honest it is hard to blame them; the level of liquidity, even at the best of times, is so limited that for a fund of any size the option of significantly reducing exposure rapidly simply does not exist. This makes it hard to talk with any frankness about the short term if one happens to be bearish. There are no prizes for predicting a downturn if you cannot alter your position to take advantage of it.

The classic analogy for managing an investment in illiquid markets is that of steering an oil tanker. To avoid a hazard ahead, action needs to be taken a long way in advance and taken gradually without sudden movements. Only so much can be transacted without alerting the market to your plans and prices moving against you.

Managing the EUR 115m Vintage Wine Fund gave us plenty of opportunity to experience this first hand. When sub-prime raised its head in summer 2007 several canny investors immediately said they were reducing risk exposure across the board and were going to redeem. Others were sure to follow. We set about selling and in what seems a gravity-defying period had almost a year to work through as great a quantity of disposals as we dared without spooking the market. By the time the collapse of Lehman Brothers finally kicked the stool away, a third of the investors had already exited with profits intact.

For those who remained there was a stark choice: get out now in a collapsed market which had virtually seized up, or stick it out. Thankfully, many investors chose the latter and a second bite at the cherry came with the Asian rally. This time, it was the ludicrous prices paid in the Hong Kong ex-cellars Lafite auction in autumn 2010 which set the alarm bells ringing. Again, we had some time and our disposals included a dedicated auction with Christies in Hong Kong in March 2011. When the bottom fell out of the market with the Chinese anti-corruption clamp down that summer, investors were already substantially cashed out.

Substantially, but not entirely. There is no denying the fact that the few investors who remained endured a pretty torrid period while the Fund completed the process of winding itself up. With a bit more time in the run up to summer 2011 we could definitely have done better for that small minority.

The point of all this reminiscing is that while perusing the reports of The Fine Wine Fund we couldn’t help noticing something. The Fine Wine Fund is managed by Wine Asset Managers (WAM) whose reports have always been of the more interesting and meaningful variety. They also happen to publish the proportion of the fund actually invested in wine as opposed to held in cash. In August 2015 this proportion was 99.8% but has fallen steadily until in September 2016 it was just 21.9%. The fund has been selling solidly for well over a year.  We do not wish to speculate on the reasons for this but the interesting part for us is that the market has clearly absorbed a significant amount of stock and has done so without ill effect.  Not only is that indicative of an orderly and well-managed program of selling by WAM; it is also indicative of a market in good health which is encouraging for all of us. 
By Andrew Davison 11 Sep, 2016
Anyone who has read our numerous posts on wine pricing will be familiar with our view on how, in the current economic and interest rate environment, the prices of young wines should relate to those of older vintages. Young wines inevitably become older wines and so the value of a young wine should be lower bounded by the discounted expectation of its value when older. In terms of pricing, the current utility of a wine, i.e. the pleasure of consuming it or the joy of simply owning it, only becomes relevant when it is greater than the (maximum) discounted expectation of its value when older. This does not stop many commentators from misguidedly invoking a lack of current utility to argue that young wines are too expensive. Those interested in a rigorous mathematical formulation will find one in Dimson, E. et al. The price of wine, Journal of Financial Economics (2015): http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jfineco.2015.08.005

It is therefore interesting to look at the following plot of good (but not outstanding) physical vintages of first growths. Each wine price is expressed as a proportion of the average price across all included vintages of that wine.
By Andrew Davison 15 Jul, 2016
Watermark’s business is clearly one which makes interaction with trading partners throughout the EU a daily routine. There has therefore been no shortage of opportunities to chat about the result of the UK’s referendum on EU membership and these conversations have been fascinating. First however, there are a few points concerning the referendum upon which it is simply impossible to resist the urge to comment.

It would be greatly to the benefit of us all if we could dispense with the flawed notion that the motivations of voters on either side can be inferred from the content of the respective campaigns . The question on the voting card was “Should the United Kingdom Remain in the EU or Leave the EU?” Voters were not asked to express an opinion on immigration or the refugee crisis or NHS funding. The result of the referendum illuminated the view held by the population on membership of the EU, and that is all. I think this is important for two reasons: firstly, if we are to unify behind this national project then we will need to view each other without pre-conceptions concerning our beliefs on any particular issue (or indeed on our general level of intelligence); secondly, when our government comes to respecting the democratic will of the people, any detail which is finer than “Leave the EU” is open to negotiation.

Now, while every detail of any ultimate agreement with the rest of the EU should be on the table the one thing that must be off the table is the possibility that we might not leave. There are some who argue that we did not know exactly what we were voting for and that when we have negotiated a more detailed exit we should have another referendum: negotiate the best deal possible and then vote. Sounds familiar but at least when David Cameron was negotiating the EU had an incentive (albeit one they seemed able to resist) to offer the UK concessions on continuing EU membership in an effort to entice us to vote Remain. Now that we are negotiating terms of leaving, the idea of a second referendum merely provides an incentive to make any exit deal as unattractive as possible. The most important thing we can state on the first day of negotiations is that there are precisely two end results: we leave with a deal if one can be agreed or we leave with no deal at all.

We have heard some argue that because the campaign included half-truths, wild speculation, breath-taking bad taste and blatant lies (so in that respect was typical), the electorate has been deceived and must vote again. That is to accuse voters of an inability to sift the truth from the lies. This I would strongly dispute. Moreover, voters are perfectly aware when certainty is just not possible and can be trusted to treat with deep scepticism those who would claim to predict the future with accuracy.

None of the above is intended as an argument for or against Brexit, but it certainly is a criticism of those who would seek to disregard the result of the referendum, or re-run it. Whether it is some legal technicality, or some criticism of the campaign or some idea that the motion was too vague, it all amounts to saying that the electorate got it wrong. You either believe in democracy or you do not. If, as the referendum has been characterised, this was a moment where ordinary people with all manner of social backgrounds and political allegiances finally got their voice heard above that of the elite then there is something distinctly distasteful about the lengths to which some seem willing to go to ignore what was so clearly proclaimed.

Coming back to conversations with our trading counterparties it has been interesting to observe a hopeful anticipation about how the result of our referendum may influence reforms within the EU institutions. It is hardly news that disillusionment with the EU extends beyond the UK; but there is also a real appreciation of why we, as a country not needing to disentangle from the Euro, might feel it viable to deal with these ever increasing concerns by simply leaving. And although the result was clearly a surprise to many of our partners, there is certainly no sense of insult. Why should there be? It was the EU and Brussels we could not stomach, not Europe or Europeans. One of the more absurd ideas put forward since the referendum is the one that states we have caused such offense that we will now find it difficult to have relationships, be they business or social, with other Europeans. I would suggest that a friendship which is dependent on our membership of the EU is a fairly peculiar one.

The highest priority from everyone we have spoken to is to continue to do business. There is a clear determination to ensure our trade together continues to flourish despite this change. And that is what matters. The same determination will exist in businesses big and small throughout Europe and they will all take a dim view of any politician or negotiator who is seen to be raising barriers out of some fit of establishment pique.

I referred earlier to Brexit as a national project. I hope that the understandable disappointment felt by those who wished to remain in the EU will fade. It may not be the result they wanted but we can all feel fortunate to have had the chance to express our wish. The path has been chosen and there are expanses of new territory to explore ahead. Surely, regardless of how we voted, we can all get a bit excited about that even if we are also a little apprehensive. No-one can deny that Brexit creates challenges but it is equally undeniable that new opportunities will now present themselves. For all the time spent fretting about the outcome of the forthcoming negotiations with the EU (and indeed the rest of the world) the surest route to success is for individuals, families and businesses to embrace the future with optimism and vigour.
By Andrew Davison 10 May, 2016
Just in case anyone is worried, we do not propose to repeat our lengthy analysis of en primeur pricing from last year. For anyone interested in our thoughts – essentially a much more benevolent view of Bordeaux’s recent approach based on rigorous analysis – we would direct them to our earlier posts “Getting it Right” and “Comparing Apples with Pears”. But it is impossible to resist entirely the temptation to comment on the 2015 releases which are now coming thick and fast.

The biggest problem this year is deciding exactly where the new vintage sits in terms of a general classification of vintages which, to use some commonly employed terms, might be: good, excellent, outstanding and extraordinary (aka vintage of the century). To call a vintage anything less complimentary than “good” has been illegal for some time. The problem with 2015 is that it is a rather different story depending on which part of Bordeaux you are talking about. A very illustrative case in point is the recently released Malescot St Exupery – from the Margaux appellation where quality in 2015 is high and consistent.

As can be seen from the chart below (reproduced from Liv-ex), consumers are being offered Malescot 2015 at a price which sits in between the level of the great vintages and that of the “also-rans”.
By Andrew Davison 10 May, 2016
Quick update of our post about GBP/EUR. The graph below, reproduced from the Liv-ex blog, is revealing. Two main things to notice:

In February we predicted that the sharp drop in GBP vs EUR would, if it persisted, lead to a significant upward shift in London market prices to compensate. At the time of writing EUR/GBP was at 0.772 and the Liv-ex 50 index was at 270. Current levels are at 0.795 and 283 (time of writing late April 2016). So we have indeed seen a healthy 4.8% appreciation of young first growth prices in sterling terms but with GBP continuing to tumble we are still some way from fully compensating for the FX moves. Assuming we do not see a sharp rebound in sterling, there could be plenty more upside.
By Andrew Davison 13 Apr, 2016
Last week, as I was leaving Chateau Lafite Rothschild after tasting the 2015 vintage, I overheard a well-known merchant ask his colleague:

“What did you give it?”.
“95 to 97”.
“Mm, I thought it was 96 to 98+”.

I mean, they would not have spoken about the art on the wall or the view through the windows in such a vacuous and degrading manner but had absolutely no shame in discussing the wine, the star of the whole show, in these terms.

At least the opinions being so brutally expressed by the pair above were their own.  I received an offer today from a merchant encouraging me to buy wines with high ratings from Robert Parker on the basis that as the critic enters retirement we are “getting close to the day when 100RP wines…are no more.”

My thoughts on critics’ ratings and, perhaps more importantly, how those ratings are used by merchants, have been fairly emphatically expressed in an earlier post.  But this latest approach is perhaps the most nauseating yet.  This is not just the lazy adoption of Parker scores as a definitive measure of quality, but goes a step further and blatantly embraces the idea that wines without a rating from Parker (and therefore all wines of the future) are less desirable.

The culprits are just one of the horde of wine merchants who have simply dispensed with the notion that it is the wine, the liquid in the glass and the sensations it arouses, which gives their customers pleasure.  They have formed the view that their customers derive enjoyment only from the knowledge that they are drinking wines which have the approval of Mr Parker.  The worrying thing is that they may have formed this view based on the behaviour of their customers; in other words, they may be right.

So it appears that before Parker emerged on the scene we had no way of telling whether a wine was giving us pleasure or not.   We may have tried drinking it and perhaps had an inkling that it was rather nice but without a score from Parker how could we possibly know whether we really liked it?  During the period of his activity over the last few decades we have been in a joyful state of certainty about what wines are good, or bad, or “modern day legends” or even “perfect”.  But we are about to be plunged once more into the darkness.  We will sip at a wine and swirl it in the glass and sniff it and wonder whether we are enjoying it or not and we will look into the distance and forlornly ask ourselves “What would Parker have thought about this?”
By Andrew Davison 14 Feb, 2016
It is interesting to look at an updated version of the chart which was the subject of our post in January. GBP has continued to weaken versus the Euro but London prices are still only marginally higher than they were last summer. This means the value of young first growths has dropped 9% in Euro terms over the last 6 months. As a result, we are seeing strong demand from Euro denominated traders and the fact that GBP prices have not pushed up further is perhaps indicative of significant inventories in the hands of sterling denominated sellers. There is of course therefore the potential for a sizeable squeeze up in GBP prices when these stocks are depleted.
By Andrew Davison 17 Jan, 2016
We will no doubt shortly be reading upbeat reports from wine fund managers about a healthy start to the year with wine prices firming up even while equity markets are plummeting.  Indeed, there are many positive signs and the seasonal demand generated by the forthcoming Chinese New Year celebrations is certainly keeping volumes ticking over.  And we do share the view that the short to medium term outlook is good.  But it is worth noting that the recent rally in London market prices does not yet begin to compensate for the collapse in GBP vs both the EUR and the USD.

As can be seen from the graph below we are at similar levels in GBP terms to where we were last summer which equates to prices having dropped around nearly 8% for USD and EUR buyers.  No wonder we are seeing good demand and it seems likely that there is further upside as the effects of weaker sterling are fully absorbed, assuming of course that current FX levels persist.  Profits are profits but it would probably be sensible to regard this as more about making money from being short GBP than from being long wine.
By Andrew Davison 07 Sep, 2015
Every time I receive an offer from a merchant quoting a score from some wine critic I cringe.   I have always viewed the giving of scores to fine wines with some distaste but over the last few years that distaste has grown into full blown contempt.

There are endless articles on the subject of scoring wines; the rational and philosophical arguments that can be built against the usefulness of the practice are to my mind conclusive.  However, the fact that a wine score is virtually meaningless is not what leaves me cold; rather, it is the sheer bad taste of wishing to append such a ham-fisted, one-dimensional judgement on a wine to a detailed tasting note.  All wine critics will plead that the text of their tasting notes is what really matters but by adding a score they immediately trash their entire effort.  How can we have any respect for the judgement of someone who is willing to reduce wine to this level?  It is like writing a detailed description of the face of a beautiful woman and then adding as a final comment “Out of two I’d give her one”.

Perhaps there really was a time when the amount of information on wine was so limited and the advice of merchants was so biased and the quality of wines was so erratic that the consumer was simply at a loss to know what to buy.  One can possibly understand the attractiveness of a simple score in such circumstances and why Robert Parker chose to adopt the practice but there was always going to be a price to pay for such a brutal approach.

Look at any fine wine merchant’s list now and you will see a score from some critic quoted beside every line.  It is as if the score is a feature of the wine like the alcohol content or the pH level.  The fact that wine-loving, knowledgeable and thoughtful merchants would seem to believe that they have no choice but to propagate this nonsense is lamentable.

The very existence of scores has spawned a group of consumers who have not the slightest concern for their own opinion of a wine; it is not even clear if they bother to form an opinion.  They derive pleasure not from drinking wine but from the knowledge that the wine they are drinking has been given a big score by some critic.  All the better if that score is 100 points, sometimes revoltingly referred to as “a perfect score” or “the three digit score”.  I swear I nearly throw up when I read that sort of rubbish.

Wine investors find the notion that the quality of a wine can be neatly summed up in a single number very appealing.  The correlation between the score and the price is most convenient for them.  But the correlation is one of their own making (with the help of the group described in the preceding paragraph).  It is a self-perpetuating construct which relies only on enough people paying attention to the scores, and not actually on the scores having any intrinsic meaning.

And the critics themselves have become mesmerised with their scores.  The amount of self-important hand wringing that one sees on social media is unseemly. All the fretting over exactly when to release scores or over whether some critics are upping their scores to get themselves noticed all seems to me to be based on a rather inflated view of how much wine-lovers really care about these beastly scores.

Indeed I believe that a growing number of consumers is beginning to find the whole thing a complete turn-off.  Each time we approach the release of new or updated scores from a major critic it seems to me that the undignified excitement amongst the trade is based on their expectation of a level of consumer reaction which is simply no longer materialising.

As Robert Parker gradually withdraws from the limelight he could still make perhaps his most important contribution to wine criticism. He could be true to his own assertion that the tasting note is where the information lies and stop awarding scores to wines.  He could argue (rightly or wrongly) that his former approach was justified by the particular needs of the wine consumer in the past but that what he set out to achieve using scores has now been accomplished and therefore this approach is no longer required.   This would certainly be a brave move but I genuinely believe most wine lovers would be delighted to see an end to wine scores.  Parker really started it all so it would seem entirely appropriate that he should be the one to call an end to it.
By Andrew Davison 06 Aug, 2015

We have relocated (from Blogger) to here within our own site and hopefully the uniform look and feel will enhance the experience for readers.  Our last few posts which present our thoughts on en primeur pricing and wine price analysis in general have been re-posted here.  An RSS feed is located at http://www.watermarkfinewine.com/feed/rss2

The market is quiet as is the norm for August.  It is a good time to pick up bargains in a thin market where low bids can attract the odd cheap case from sellers unable or unwilling to wait until September.  Occasionally the summer sellers ultimately look quite clever - e.g. 2008 - but, with the strong dollar keeping the US keen, that seems unlikely this time.

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