Luxury Spending Dispute

One of my favorite pastimes is noting news articles that appear to directly contradict one another, especially if they're from two big sources. Today I stumbled upon the following two headlines. The first was from Bloomberg on Friday:

Wealthy U.S. Shoppers Boost Spending 29%, Survey Says

This one was on today:

Luxury-Goods Sales Still Soft, Recovery Unlikely Before 2011

So who's right? Well, they both kind of are.

Let's start with the Bloomberg version of the story. A 29% increase is pretty significant. And if you're wealthy, chances are you're spending more on luxury goods. The rich aren't suddenly going to Wal-Mart more often. Indeed, the article also notes:

U.S. luxury sales rose 3.4 percent to $891 million in September from a year earlier, the first such gain since August 2008, according to figures provided today by credit-card company MasterCard in its SpendingPulse report. Last month, those sales fell 13 percent from the previous year.

But maybe this helps to reconcile things, also from Bloomberg:

The researcher's luxury confidence index rose 1.6 points to 75.9, after jumping 18.6 points to 74.3 in the previous quarter. That index peaked at 113.2 at the end of March 2006. Its low was 40.3 in September 2008. It started at 100 in January 2004.

Aha! Luxury is rebounding, but is still extremely low compared to the historical high from 2006.

So even with this increase, it makes sense when the WSJ reports:

The forecast, to be released this morning by consultants Bain & Co., narrows the global decline that Bain had forecast six months ago. In April, it predicted a 10% world-wide sales drop for 2009, citing its expected first-half plunge of as much as 20% followed by stabilization in the second half.

Indeed, luxury sales will still likely be lower for the year versus 2008, but they're improving. I think this makes a lot of sense if you think about the state of the economy.

Let's face it: lately the rich are feeling, well, richer. The Dow Jones recently hit 10,000. The market is doing better while the broader economy doesn't seem to have rebounded much, as unemployment continues to climb, up to 9.8% in September.

Needless to say, the stock market's gains probably don't help many in the lower class. Those in the middle class benefit mainly from 401k contributions, which don't make them feel much wealthier. The rich, however, have a more sizable amount of their money invested. So that wealth effect is more easily felt. As a result, richer people are probably a little more comfortable opening up their wallets than they were, say, eight months ago, when the DJI was around 7555.

I've written several times about how the rich have been hurt by the great recession. But the stock market recovery benefits that group far more than everybody else. Of course, I also recently noted that Wall Street will be collecting big bonuses again this year. For these reasons, I suspect luxury goods will keep the positive trend as long as the stock market and Wall Street compensation continue to climb. In the event of a double dip or another financial crisis, however, all bets are off.