The economics of handbags

I wonder if you have a Hermès Birkin handbag in your cupboard somewhere. If so, you might want to dig it out. Odds are it is one of the best investments you ever made.

Prices for new Birkins start at $4,200. Last year, says Barbara McMahon in The Times, bidding for a 2012 crocodile-skin Birkin hit $106,000.

A grey-blue and green leather 2013 model went for $32,500 and a 2010 “shiny electric blue” began at $30,000 and went for $81,250. This is no longer unusual.

What, you might wonder, is going on? It’s partly because some handbags (the Birkin being an obvious example) are really nice. But it is also down to scarcity.

Hermès “cultivates rarity by releasing the handbags in limited quantities and on unpredictable schedules” (this may sound familiar to those of you who remember the Beanie Babies craze).

The result? Most women who want one end up on an 18-million-strong waiting list for a custom-made version and “secondary handbag sales” have become a “global phenomenon”.

You will think this silly. Why would anyone be stupid enough to pay $100,000 for a handbag, let alone a second-hand handbag? It’s a fair point. But the handbag market is just another symptom of the way in which all markets are priced.

This week, the Bank for International Settlements warned that valuations in “euphoric” financial markets have “become detached from reality”.

All asset classes have been rising as one (gold, oil, wheat, stocks and bonds together), and it is hard to find an indicator that tells you that buying into many of them – even a handbag made from the single skin of a large ring lizard ($37,500) – is a good idea.

Take the US, the most highly valued of the developed markets. The FT’s James Mackintosh notes that on the face of it the average price/earnings (p/e) ratio is still lower than during the dotcom bubble.

But dig deeper and you find that the median p/e is higher than it was: in the late 1990s, a few stocks went to insane levels and dragged the simple average up. Today all stocks are equally expensive. Outside the likes of Japan and Russia, there are no bargains.

I discuss the difficulty of this in with Aberdeen Asset Management’s Anne Richards. But what do you do about it – particularly now you can put up to £15,000 into an individual savings account (Isa) each year?

Our cover story runs through some options, and there are strong arguments for hanging on to solid dividend-paying stocks – what Robin Angus at Personal Assets Trust calls “compounders”. But bear in mind too that there isn’t anything wrong with holding cash inside an Isa.

It might not pay much by way of interest (investing platforms are remarkably ungenerous on this score). But it does give you optionality: the ability to buy when easy money comes to an end (as it surely will) and prices eventually fall (as they surely will).

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