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McNellis: Investing in Accidental Assets

Christmas, French Bordeaux, Grand Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases Saint-Julien, Kool-Aid, New York, Malibu, Financial Times

By John McNellis

McNellis
Casting about in the cluttered basement the night before our firm’s annual Christmas lunch, I happened across a couple bottles of wine, survivors from a purchase made more than 30 years ago. The wine was a French Bordeaux from the fabled harvest of 1982, more specifically, a Grand Vin de Leoville du Marquis de Las Cases Saint-Julien. If that name means anything to you, you know far more about wine than I do. But friends who can declaim—and decant—with the snootiest of sommeliers announced way back then that they were going long on 1982 Bordeaux futures. With their kind help, I bought a couple cases of assorted ’82 Bordeaux at an average cost of around $30 a bottle.

As we were driving to the city the next day for the lunch, a partner asked about the bottle, and we Googled it. It happens that the ’82 Leoville is available at such a bewildering array of prices—from $500 to $1360 a bottle—that one questions not only the efficiency but the integrity of the wine resale market. Even using the low-end price, however, this wine had to be my best investment ever. If you put away $30 for 35 years and get $500 back, you have a 1,567 percent return. Or, if you drink this liquid asset all by yourself, one lordly hang-over.

And even if you do quaff it, apparently it’s still not a bad investment. As we were toasting one another with this Bordeaux, the canniest among us suggested that we could sell the empty ’82 bottles on-line for hundreds of dollars. We checked, and so you can. The folks at Freakonomics attribute the brisk business in empty vintage bottles to the burgeoning market in fraudulent wine. In short, scam artists buy an empty bottle that, when full retails for $1,000, put 78 cents worth of fortified Kool-Aid in it and have themselves quite a business.

This being the beginning of the year—a time more for quiet reflection than recrimination—this essay is neither to praise nor bury the wine market, but to consider that perhaps buying what you love, investing almost by accident—or at least having enjoyment of the asset, rather than its long-term gain, being your principal motivation—may not be the worst way to go. In other words, going for the chocolate cake instead of prudently investing in the asparagus of indexed mutual funds.

Many years ago I knew an older man who almost immediately after marrying a New York heiress promptly retired from the brokerage business and spent the rest of his long life badly mismanaging his wife’s portfolio, making the proverbial small fortune out of a larger one. He did, however, make one purchase that turned out so spectacularly it put Bordeaux to shame. He bought a Malibu beach house for $80,000 in the sixties, because he loved the views and the sand at his feet. When, decades later, he was no longer able to visit his bungalow, he reluctantly sold it for around $5,250,000. A 6,567 percent return.

To this same point, an acquaintance recently showed me his collection of vintage Formula 1 racing cars. In explaining why, in addition to the great joy the cars have brought him, they have proven to be such stunningly lucrative investments, he said, “The world is awash with cash, trillions of dollars are sloshing around the globe trolling for investments. The stock market is over-valued, real estate is selling at all-time high prices, and commodities are worth no more than tomorrow’s demand. Where can the money go? The best way to invest long-term is in beauty. In unique, one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable beauty, whether that beauty is a Monet hanging on the wall or a vintage Ferrari in the garage.” He also pointed out that anything, no matter what its quality or desirability, which can be endlessly reproduced has limited intrinsic value; by way of example, he mentioned the collapse of used private jet prices. (According to the Financial Times, second-hand jets have dropped 35 percent in value over the past 3 years).

Unless advising the first 25 employees of Facebook, suggesting the purchase of irreplaceable beach views or cars that Steve McQueen once raced at Le Mans is of little value. Suggesting, however, that if you take great enjoyment in acquiring and owning something, if you find it beautiful or soul-satisfying and if playing it or working it or restoring it or just looking at it makes you happy, perhaps it will far more than hold its value as it ultimately brings the same joy to its next owner.

If this were not a business magazine, I might have the temerity to suggest that you take this line of reasoning one step further and embrace that old country music line, “Don’t fall in love with nothin’ that can’t fall in love with you,” and invest your time and efforts accordingly.

John E. McNellis is a Principal at McNellis Partners in Palo Alto, Calif.

Articles published in our Contributor section do not necessarily represent the views of The Registry or Mighty Dot Media, Inc. They represent a selection of topics chosen for the value of their editorial perspective. We welcome feedback and alternative positions on topics, and we will consider publishing those, as well.

mcnellis-book-coverTo read more from McNellis, please consider his book Making It in Real Estate: Starting Out as a Developer.