Set against the backdrop of an extraordinary financial and political scene internationally, the Berthon Sales Division ship has had to maintain a constant watch on the market radar and the AIS of market change has been pinging with great regularity through 2018.
However, that said, much of the interference on the screen has failed to affect our passage although it has created some course corrections, to enable us to understand where the buyers are coming from and what the motivation to buy really is. Despite market jitters, there is a significant wave of cash building and the will to spend some of it to get out on the water certainly remains.
What is clear is that the 2 major drivers to yacht sales remain. The first is confidence. Yachtsmen need to feel confident that they are buying the right yacht that will be able to deliver on the programme that they have envisioned for themselves and their family aboard her. Otherwise there is little point in spending money to buy a depreciating asset that is not used.
The second very important driver is currency. We have talked about this often to the point of being boring, but it is dominating our market so completely that it deserves further explanation in terms of what it has meant in 2018 and what it will mean for 2019.
Returning to the confidence theme, we have seen a significant shift in client profile and yacht usage in the past 5 years and this has changed the confidence quotient as well. Of course the other herd of elephants in the room has been the fact that we now live in a world of political upheaval and the whole axis of power is changing with all the disruption that this brings. It has been said by the likes of George Friedman that we are now entering a new political and social era, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The snag with this new era however, appears to be that we don’t yet quite know what this new era is. We have had the Cold War Era. After that came a calm era followed by 2008 and all the turmoil that the financial crisis brought about. We are now in yet another phase. Interesting times indeed.
Whilst we reflect on this, the observation from a bunch of yacht brokers is that because there are so many unknown factors, so many troubled parts of our world and so many issues in terms of flood, earthquake, wars and strife; that to assimilate all these factors is a very difficult process. Therefore, most of us are doing what human kind has done for thousands of years. After the initial panic, we seem to be deciding not to worry about what we can’t change and we’re then simply getting on with life and our job, which is to sell yachts. Many of our clients tend to take the same view and when a dream of blue water cruising has been bubbling away in the vortex for years, a bit of economic turmoil seems irrelevant – after all, you are aiming to weigh anchor and disappear for a while!
Events that 5 or 10 years ago would bring our market to a shuddering halt, are barely touching the sides and as a result the telephone continues to ring and the emails continue to ping. It seems that tariff wars, Brexit, depressing reports of another financial downturn (or is that meltdown?), unsettled events in the Middle East, Ukraine and elsewhere, poisonings, high profile murders and the building of walls are all washing over us. Perhaps this is the new normal and is as a result of simply too much information being pumped through digital media channels.
As the middle classes expand across the world, our client base today is certainly wealthier than it has ever been. As mentioned earlier, this means that the usage of yachts has changed. Rather than being the main hobby or activity outside office and home life, the yacht is just one of the tools in the toy box. Therefore, there is often finite time to use her and the investment in the yacht is very much tied up in the investment of time that has been made available. Once allocated, the yacht purchase follows and is not dependant on whether MPs, senators or oligarchs get bent out of shape by the next breaking news event to flash up on Sky News.
The world economy is still growing and there is plenty of wealth out there. Business and business people have learnt to be nimble and to adjust to quickly changing circumstances and to make the best of the opportunities on offer, and of course there are many. Whereas in 2008 there was a massive adjustment and much was talked of the new normal, now the curved balls keep coming and these, together with the extraordinary possibilities of new technology has meant that ourclients are taking advantage of all that the new normal has to offer.
Berthon are very much involved with blue water cruising – both sail and power. We did have some concerns that some of the problems of Brexit, big movements in oil pricing and the rest would prompt people to change their plans and to defer that planned for ocean crossing, deciding instead to come back to the office to cope with the potential fall-out that would follow. Of course there are some instances where this has happened but these are happily very few.
The general feeling amongst our client base is that with all this change it is more important than ever to get out there and to experience all that our wonderful planet can offer, and from the deck of your very own magic carpet. The trips are longer – a Pacific crossing is no longer unusual, and the North Atlantic circuit has become a big cruise rather than a life changing adventure. As areas of the world become more unstable, yachting plans alter to avoid those trouble spots as yachtsmen work around these sad difficulties created by mankind.
Of course much improved communications and technology has made this easier and the current blue water cruising yacht, whether sail or power, is a very more sophisticated and capable creature than the yachts making the ARC pilgrimage even just 10 years ago. This adds confidence to yachtsmen that they and their crew can realise the ambitious sailing plans that they have whilst also keeping in touch with family left ashore.
We are also seeing yachtsmen invest in a yacht for extensive periods aboard in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean or other playgrounds, organising a life that fits around 4 or 6 months aboard every year. Because the work place is much more dynamic and career and job changes are common, our clients are rewarding themselves with a big trip between projects and of course it is very common for retirement to loom in when people are in their 40s or 50s rather than just 60+. For those of more mature years, automated rigs and the like – together with advances in medical support – have enthusiastic sailors crossing oceans in their 70s and beyond.
Now that the model of staying in one job, very often in one company, for a lifetime is well and truly broken, the corporate warriors of today need a little more than a few trade barriers to slow them down and stop them going yachting.
And now we come back to currency. This has always been an important factor and has been a driving force for the marketplace for many decades. In the days before the web was omnipotent and before the euro was born, European yacht prices would judder around as francs, lira, deutsch marks (…and the rest) moved with market forces. The Euro stabilised all that and then the web took over in Europe highlighting euro priced yachts that became overpriced because of the climbing euro. Those who didn’t join the euro party also added some excitement – sterling and krona movements swung markets as they gyrated to boom and bust on the oil price, and so on. However, what we are now seeing is that the US$ has become the prominent currency in international yacht sales as sterling remains in the doldrums, the euro looks overvalued and subject to Populism and American shale oil regenerates its industrial base. This is not to say that all brokerage yachts are priced in US$, as this is clearly not the case. It is that the strength of the US$ is giving those who hold them enormous buying power and we are seeing the enquiry rate and hits on our website and You Tube channel dominated by enquiries from the USA. An example of this is our Winter Collection video which was launched before Christmas 2018 – over 60% of all hits were from the USA. For a European brokerage house with a single office in the USA this is an extraordinary statistic.
Americans are buying in Europe and as Jennifer from our Berthon USA office pointed out, happy to cruise in Europe and via the Caribbean before returning to their home waters. We benefit from being able to offer them an onshore service with contract, escrow accounts and American brokers from our Newport, Rhode Island office. This is increasing the success rate and Berthon USA is key to our international operation, as the American prominence in the international market dominates today.
We expect that the Euro will continue to have a challenging time this year with the potential of a crisis in Italy and France as well as the smaller but still unsolved problem of Greece. There is talk of a 2 tier Euro system which will be interesting, and of course greater centralisation of the remaining member states may either give the currency some more grounding or more likely make the waters more turbulent, but we will have to wait and see what the May (not Theresa’s) elections bring.
As for sterling, Brexit cogitations will keep it weak. This of course helps Yacht Building UK PLC with the likes of Sunseeker, Fairline, Princess and Oyster able to provide a first rate product at a very attractive price point. We are sure that this will also assist Rustler who we represent in the USA where the brand has a great following, and of course Discovery. This is super helpful for the pre-owned Discoverys that we market and sell, which are loved in the American market, where they are acknowledged as stiff competition for Hylas and Oyster.
Other currencies also have some impact for Berthon, like the Swedish krona for new larger Windy sales – thank goodness
they switched production away from high cost Norway. The smaller currencies, however, are less critical to the overall market but important for the nations who call them theirs. A good example of this is the New Zealand dollar whose relative strength has put paid to a fantastic yacht building industry, although we are now seeing McConaghy, McMullen & Wing and the like doing well again.
The march of technology, international supply chains and labour rates are seeing areas like Poland, Turkey and Slovenia make inroads into the yacht building arena but these are subjects for a different article.
So, despite our fears and worries of how our troubled world might affect our market, we enter 2019 with the patient in rude good health. 2018 was a good year and we have learnt to understand how the currency game is being played and who is buying. This has of course changed our marketing slant slightly but we also do not underestimate the buying power of those with euros, sterling, krona and dollars of a different hue.
Many clients today hold wealth in different continents and different currencies and increasingly an English, German or
Australian seller will be quite content to accept US$s for a yacht sale where the cash will go to join the others that they already hold. However, importantly, yachts priced in weak currencies are attractive in the market and their resultant pricing becomes the benchmark for the sale price of sister yachts in the future.
Our business is also about confidence and about the appetite for purely discretional spending where value is not measured in yield or capital gain, but in the joy, camaraderie and adventure that a yacht whether sail or power can offer to the yachtsman, his family and friends. Fortunately, as of now, the tides continue to operate as our Maker intended and the desire to get out there and have fun on the water continues unabated.