We have spent a considerable amount time on this blog defending the merits of globalization in general and free trade in particular. One of the key selling points of opening up trade relations is that consumers get access to more variety and cheaper products. You would need only to compare the variety of cuisine offered in major cities like London, Beijing and Tokyo to what it was 30 years ago for a vivid illustration of this change.
Globalization has also produced some interesting effects on markets for alcoholic beverages. For instance, I enjoy quizzing Guinness drinkers on which country consumes the most of Ireland's famous black liquor. They are usually surprised to learn that Nigeria has taken over the largest share of the Guinness market, with more sales than either Ireland or the UK. In fact, a reliable source suggests that Africa accounts for 40% of Guinness' brew and sales.
So globalized markets are great for beer connoisseurs in Africa. However, I'm sorry to say that there are limits to the globalization of alcoholic beverages, and we've reached them. The line has been crossed. If this trend is not corrected, then I'm leaving the globalization fan club. I'll be handing in my members mug and hoisting a poorly-designed placard, donning my gas mask and joining an anti-globalization rally somewhere. Because, you see, this morning I learned that the Asians are drinking all the scotch.
I was in the liquor store inquiring about why a certain bottle of single malt was no longer being carried, and was it possible for it to be ordered. Following a Q & A, I learned that, despite being one of the largest purchasers of alcoholic beverages in the world, my government-monopoly-owned liquor store is losing its market share of single malt scotch to Asia. Not only has the selection declined, but the prices of the remaining scotches is going up. Indeed, I have watched in horror as the price of one particular bottle - Lagavulin - has increased 25% over the past 6 months. The same trend repeats itself across the shelf, although in varying degrees.
There are some basic economic factors at play here. First, demand in Asia is waaaay up. So much so that suppliers are having a difficult time keeping up with their orders. The high-growth markets are the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) as well as Singapore, South Korea and other smaller markets. Furthermore, I was told by the manager of the aforementioned liquor store that the profit margins are higher in East Asia when compared to the more mature markets of North America - this, despite the fact that they need to ship the booze further and that Asian consumers are less-wealthy, as a group. I wonder if the lack of competition helps as well: in North America, (Scottish) scotch has to compete with Irish whiskey, Canadian whiskey, bourbon and similar products. I doubt the same is true of South Korea.
Thus, by harnessing some of the benefits of globalization, major emerging markets have grown wealthy and have begun importing products on which to spend that wealth. The effect, perversely, is that the globalization of markets has actually made products in my part of the world both less available and more expensive.
A few more points are worth pondering:
- First, is this trend going to repeat itself with other luxury goods like Persian rugs, French wine and German cars?
- Second, given the way things are going lately, this trend makes distilling scotch one of the few areas of UK business where things are looking good (that, and bankruptcy law). In fact, several new distilleries have been built to deal with the surge in demand. Will these new distilleries be able to ride the wave long enough to compete with more established brands? The Asian Generation of single malts, perhaps.
- A final, and related, point is that Asia is set to be very hard hit by the fallout from the current financial turmoil. Will that curb their enthusiasm for delicious scotch? It's reasonable to suspect that it will, but only temporarily. As Frank the Tank put it so eloquently: "Once it touches your lips..."