When Chinese policy makers devalued the renminbi last month, the subsequent ripples through global markets were just the latest in a long line of currency shocks to rock the Swiss luxury replica watch industry this year. Yet even as investors quickly dumped shares in European luxury goods players with sizable exposure to the Chinese consumer market, including LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Richemont, and as fresh fears of further slowdowns in luxury sales rose, at least one of the coterie’s high-end watchmakers voiced confidence in the future.
“The devaluation of the yuan is just a wave in the ocean compared to the tsunami that hit us in January after the dissolution of the franc cap,” said Jean-Claude Biver, chief executive of TAG Heuer and head of LVMH’s watch division, which includes his brand as well as Hublot and Zenith. “That knocked us into real crisis.” He referred to the Swiss central bank’s unexpected decision to scrap an artificial cap that kept the Swiss franc pegged to the euro — which dropped it from 1.20 francs to the euro on Jan. 14 to 0.85 franc the following day. By late August, the currency was at 1.08 francs to the euro.
“It is still too early to tell exactly what will happen, but the reality is, our industry has coped with much more than this over the years, and we will do so again,” Mr. Biver continued. “For now, I believe we have gone through the worst of the worst and have entered a period of consolidation and stability.” Mr. Biver’s optimism should be welcomed by contemporaries in the Swiss replica watch industry weary of the prospect of more obstacles to growth. The change in the franc increased their production costs and created large pricing variations across sales regions. Most Swiss watchmakers had to offset the mismatch between their costs and revenue bases by either increasing or slashing prices, or by accepting a new and uncomfortable era of lower margins.
For example, Patek Philippe Replica decreased its prices in February 7 percent in North and South America, 5 percent in Switzerland, 7 percent in Hong Kong and 3 percent in the rest of Asia and the Pacific, while increasing its prices 7 percent in the eurozone and 5 percent in Japan. And Richemont, the world’s second largest luxury goods company by market capitalization and owner of replica watch brands such as IWC Schaffhausen and Piaget, reported a 35 percent decline in net income in May because of losses on hedging contracts it had bought to cope with currency fluctuations.
“We’ve got to get on with life,” the Richemont chairman, Johann Rupert, said after reporting the tumble, adding that moving production out of Switzerland was not an option. As for exchange rate volatility, “we survived it before and I think we’ll survive it again,” he continued. “Switzerland is still a wonderful place to do business.” Jon Cox, an analyst at Kepler Cheuvreux in Switzerland, estimated that every move of 1 percentage point in the Swiss franc now costs Richemont 10 basis points, or one tenth of one percent, of its profit margin.
For Swatch Group, which focuses more on middle-market timepieces, he said the same change in the franc cuts 20 basis points, or two-tenths of 1 percent from its margin. But Mr. Cox also noted that narrowing price differentials, coupled with a gradual strengthening of both the euro and the dollar against the franc, is improving the position of Swiss brands. High-end watch sales in the United States and purchases made by domestic European shoppers have been solid in recent months, he added, noting that price stabilization and a careful rein on inventory levels actually may prompt Chinese shoppers used to spending abroad to spend closer to home instead.
“Many brands have put significant investment into their operations in Hong Kong and China,” Mr. Cox said, “and would like to see that pay off after years of Chinese tourists’ going further afield to make luxury purchases in Europe and elsewhere in Asia to take advantage of more competitive prices. “Perhaps this latest chapter in the currency wars is actually beneficial for all concerned, especially when it comes to combating the gray market which has created a real headache for the luxury replica watch world,” he said, referring to daigou sales — shoppers who buy luxury goods in bulk outside China to sell for personal profit at home.
Weakening demand from Chinese tourists shopping across Asia has been cited as the primary reason there was a 9.3 percent decline in Swiss replica watch exports in July, the steepest monthly decline since November 2009. But Luca Solca, head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas in Paris, noted in late August that exports were down only 1.2 percent over all in 2015 and that some pressure on companies’ earnings comparables was expected to ease toward the end of the fourth quarter. (It will have been a year since the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests first began to take their toll on shopping revenues in the city.)
He also pointed to robust second-quarter performances by companies such as LVMH as indicators of continuing luxury demand and said the decline in share prices created by the Swiss franc cap removal had moderated for companies such as Swatch and Richemont to 5 to 6 percent. “The boom days are undeniably over for brands, replaced instead with a constant balancing act which is as much an alchemy as a science,” Mr. Solca said. “The peak of the Chinese demand days are now behind us. “The road to success is far less obvious than it once was, but there are positive signs when it comes to long-term growth. Time will tell.”