From Dutch tulip mania in the 17th century to the 2008 Financial Crisis, the history of the stock market warns us that downturns are both inevitable and hard to predict. However, in the midst of ongoing concerns about the outcome of the trade dispute between Beijing and Washington, many businesses, investors, and commentators are worrying that another global recession may be in the cards.
Every well-managed company will do what it can to safeguard its bottom line from economic volatility, but unfortunately, some industries are always going to be more at risk than others. Here are three companies whose core offerings are likely to sustain damage if and when an atmosphere of uncertainty takes hold of the global economy.
With superstar French entrepreneur Bernard Arnauld at the helm, luxury goods conglomerate LVMH (LVMUY 0.29%) exudes European opulence. Its portfolio of costly brands includes the likes of Dom Perignon, Dior, and Louis Vuitton. But LMVH's presence is not limited to one side of the Atlantic: Last month, the company revealed it will acquire Tiffany (TIF) for just over $16 billion, thereby adding an American jewel to its crown.
The world of luxury consumer goods is always at risk when the general public decides to begin tightening its belt, and few brands symbolize that world better than Tiffany. With its huge gross margins -- usually hovering around 60% -- and the carefully cultivated aura of prestige around its products, Tiffany brands itself almost exclusively as an emporium of "finer things."
A decade ago, when the world was embroiled in the previous recession, jewelry stocks suffered disproportionately, with almost two-thirds of companies in the business reporting that they had been negatively affected either "somewhat" or "a great deal." At the time, Tiffany itself said that it was overwhelmed by a new culture of "haggling" as customers sought whatever discounts they could. That said, Tiffany's astonishing longevity (it was founded in 1837), as well as the fact that sales for truly high-end products can often ride out market fluctuations, may prove to be a silver (or diamond) lining for the iconic company.
Indeed, one of the chief motivations behind the recent LVMH takeover is the brand's continuing success in China, and among Chinese tourists in the U.S. Worldwide, the luxury goods sector is worth roughly $1 trillion, with China's wealthy consumers accounting for a full third of all spending. This could prove a problem for LVMH if the country's astonishing rise to economic dominance takes a wrong turn, and the middle classes of Shanghai and Beijing suddenly find themselves unable to purchase their finery from Paris and New York.
2. Huazhu Group
Travel is almost always a discretionary expense, with the exception of business trips -- and even those tend to drop during a downturn. Huazhu Group (HTHT 1.98%), previously known as China Lodging Group, will be doubly at risk during a recession. Not only is hotel management at the core of its business, but the company operates primarily in a single market, China, where the effects of a major slump are harder to quantify (the country has not reported a recession in more than 25 years).
On the other hand, hoteliers have always been studying the art of filling rooms during a recession and Huazhu has extremely sophisticated technology behind it, including innovative customer support and chatbots that allow it to communicate deals and discounts to customers in a unique way. The sheer diversity of its operations also provides a degree of insurance against volatility. With a portfolio of 18 brands -- both upscale and economy -- the company's offerings are varied enough to appeal to a large swathe of the Chinese market in both good times and bad.
While premium coffee, in general, is notorious for its high markup rate, Starbucks (SBUX 0.62%) products are especially notable for their price. When we pay more for our lattes at the Seattle favorite (compared to say, Dutch Bros or Dunkin'), part of that money is covering the rent for the company's high-street real estate, while another portion is going toward its constantly shifting seasonal menu. What customers are also paying for, however, is access to a low-key status symbol, advertising a degree of disposable income. If some of that brand value has worn off in Western countries, research shows that it's alive and well in Starbucks' most significant new market, China.
The rising Chinese middle class is known for its love of status symbols, especially those imported from North America and Europe, and the Starbucks brand retains a fashionable, cosmopolitan aura in the country. Unlike the U.S., however, China has not had a major recession in a quarter-century, making the behavior of pinched consumers there especially hard to predict.
The notion that Starbucks is a minor luxury that consumers should do without is well-established. After the crisis of 2007-8, the company did indeed see a sharp decline in foot traffic and was forced to close as many as 900 unprofitable stores during the fallout. The company's response was suitably brave. Rather than simply slash prices, it rebranded itself as an environmentally friendly, social media-savvy meeting space, with free Wi-Fi and excellent decor, thereby justifying the cost. Since then, of course, almost every chain restaurant has followed suit. We may just have to wait and see whether this was Starbucks' greatest idea, or whether it has another recession-buster up its sleeve.
MyWallSt operates a full disclosure policy. MyWallSt staff currently holds long positions in Tiffany & Co., Huazhu, and Starbucks. Read the full disclosure policy here.