Monday, December 15th, 2008
frugality in vogue

Over the last few years there was an escalation in the availability of what I call “money porn,” those glossy publications that celebrate wealth and all of its trappings.  The worst among them are thick packages of slick nothingness, in which it is difficult to separate the editorial content from the advertisements, the message of “buy more expensive stuff and show you are rich” being broadcast on every page.

Other magazines that some might put into the category strike a better balance, with interesting stories and illustrations alternating with ads that happen to fit the tastes of the moneyed folks that tend to read them.  The advertisers in WorthWorth | The magazine is subtitled “Wealth in Perspective,” which fits its content. pitch you personal jets and watches that cost the equivalent of an Ivy League education, and the articles primarily deal with concerns of those that can afford such things, but often there is information of value for us wannabes.

There were many smaller regional publications that sprouted up recently to cash in on the spending spree and some have already shut down, just as the pages in the big ones are starting to contract.  For a new day has dawned and cheap, if not chic, is certainly in.

It is impossible to pick up a paper without seeing an article about cutting back.  Everyone is doing it, even those that don’t have to; interspersed with the stories of forced cutbacks from financial trauma and fear are ones that talk about guilt from still having the wherewithal to shop.For instance:  “Shopping is almost embarrassing right now,” said Maggie Buckley, a beauty magazine editor (New York Times).  “People don’t want to look like they have money now,” said Mark Templin of Lexus (Wall Street Journal). Layaway plans have made a comeback and even the sellers of luxury goods are forced to get creative, as with De Beers, whose full-page ads now say it’s time to stop purchasing “stuff we never love” and “reassess what really matters.”  That’s right, diamonds are still perfect for your needs.

For investors and investment firms, this apparent cultural shift raises a variety of questions, not the least of which is the durability of the nascent trend.  Given the propensity of Americans to spend rather than save, we must first ask whether this is merely a passing fad.  If it’s not, then the fancy offices of financial advisors might seem ostentatious to the beleaguered clients, rather than aspirational — after all, their fees pay for the glitz.  The advisors will also need to brush up on the aphorisms of bygone eras that focused on thrift rather than relative performance.

In the market, the deleveraging process is well under way and one of the great imponderables for those with capital to allocate is how far along various assets classes are in the scramble to get back to a pay-as-you-go approach.  After all, there were lots of crazy things going on that we are only now reading about, some that should have gotten a lot more attention, including such loony ideas as issuing bonds to invest in pension plans.Pensions & Investments | This editorial explores such “sure bets” that were thought to work because the interest expense on the bonds was less than the presumed rate of return on the proceeds when invested.  Oops.

For those who invest in stocks, there has been a double-barreled effect on share prices, even those of companies not directly in the path of the financial crisis.  Forecasts of earnings and cash flows are highly uncertain now, largely because of the possibility that the American appetite for stuff — which had been so reliable as to be taken as a given — is suddenly being questioned.  And, like in malls these days, no one is paying up for anything, so multiple compression compounds the uncertainty.

How long will it take for all of this to be discounted, and for the values that lurk to be truly worth tucking away?  The bargain shopper in stores sometimes ends up with a basement full of deals of no worth, just as the bargain shopper in the market who is looking for marked-down treasures can end up with lots of duds that gather dust.

One of the toughest parts of the current environment is the fact that thriftiness was so far out of the mainstream that we have a long way to go if it really takes hold.  But if frugality ever actually gets in Vogue, it may be time to go shopping again.