PARIS — Strong first-quarter results propelled LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton shares to a record high this week, but did nothing to brighten Bernard Arnault’s cautious outlook for the year ahead.
Shareholders hoping to revel in the company’s record 2016 performance at its annual general meeting in Paris on Thursday were treated instead to a repeat of the warning that Arnault, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH, delivered to analysts in January.
“In my opinion, it is at times like these, when the results are excellent, that you need to be most attentive, most vigilant and most cautious. Indeed, experience shows there is nothing worse in a successful company than self-satisfaction, and this tends to have an effect that is both numbing and demotivating,” Arnault told Thursday’s meeting at the Carrousel du Louvre.
Earlier this week, the parent of brands including Louis Vuitton, Guerlain, Moët & Chandon and Tag Heuer reported revenues rose 15 percent in the first quarter to 9.9 billion euros, or $10.55 billion, significantly beating market expectations. Organic growth was 13 percent, with all divisions posting double-digit gains.
At the group’s full-year results press conference at the beginning of the year, Arnault startled analysts by warning that the luxury sector could be headed for its biggest correction since the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers.
Among the risk factors, he cited record-low interest rates; “irrationally exuberant” stock markets, borrowing a phrase coined by former Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan; geopolitical uncertainty, with potential conflicts brewing in the areas of trade, customs and currencies, and continued low growth in Europe.
While the first half should be relatively positive, thanks to easy comparisons with the same period last year, the situation could rapidly worsen, he warned at the time. Arnault reiterated his prediction on Thursday, saying he would not be surprised if another major crisis erupted within the next five years.
“There is a crazy amount of money in all the markets, so we are ready to make a big mistake, and to cap it all, stock markets keep rising. So I think we are in a period that calls for a lot of vigilance,” he said. In a gesture of consolation, shareholders were gifted a bottle of Moët & Chandon Champagne at the meeting.
Arnault sidestepped a question about his relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both of whom he has met in recent months, but said demand was picking up in both countries.
“The Russian clientele, after having pulled back sharply due to sanctions and a large drop in oil prices, is back for the time being,” he noted.
The executive was happier to address a shareholder’s request for a recording of his recent public piano performance in Moscow alongside his wife, concert pianist Hélène Mercier, and their son Frédéric. The trio played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 7. “I’ll send you a DVD,” Arnault promised.
Asked about the group’s decision to exit De Beers Diamond Jewellers, its retail joint venture with De Beers Group, Arnault signaled that LVMH has big ambitions for Bulgari, the star of its watches and jewelry division. “We prefer to concentrate on Bulgari and other brands, and making sure that Bulgari becomes one day perhaps the number-one jewelry brand in the market,” he said.
He also made clear LVMH would retain its selective approach to acquisitions, following its recent purchase of a majority stake in German luggage maker Rimowa. “The group’s principal objective is not to make acquisitions,” he said. “It is the internal growth of our brands.”
Looking ahead, he predicted a successful launch for the line of handbags developed by Louis Vuitton in collaboration with artist Jeff Koons. Unveiled at a dinner at the Louvre museum on Tuesday, the Masters collection is scheduled to go on sale on April 28.
Arnault also touted initiatives like LVMH’s upcoming collaboration with Rihanna on a makeup collection, to be called Fenty Beauty by Rihanna, and its relaunch of department store Le Bon Marché’s e-commerce site.
“The group is totally oriented towards digital, both in terms of e-commerce, but also with regard to the internal management of our business and communication,” he said.
Antonio Belloni, group managing director, said LVMH was creating a digital skill center and shifting investment to online initiatives. This includes a target of directing 30 percent of its media spend toward digital platforms, he added.
The meeting approved the company’s proposed dividend of 4 euros, or $4.27, for 2016, up 13 percent versus 2015. Arnault said that despite the company’s high share price — it closed at 208.60 euros, or $221.47 at current exchange rates, on the Paris Stock Exchange on Thursday — he did not see the need for a share split.
“Two hundred euros is the price of a [Louis Vuitton] perfume,” he said, prompting laughter from the audience.
Animal rights group PETA had hoped to challenge LVMH at the meeting on its use of exotic skins, which the activist group alleges causes suffering to animals such as crocodiles and ostriches. The non-profit group, formally known as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, bought a single share in LVMH in order to gain admittance — a strategy it employed successfully at the Hermès AGM last year.
Anissa Putois, a French spokeswoman for PETA, said she was not able to ask the question because she was seated in a room adjacent to the main auditorium, where the proceedings were screened for the overflow crowd. “It was very disappointing,” she said.
It was the second general assembly in five months for the group, after it moved back to reporting in line with the calendar year in 2017, resulting in a shortened financial year that exceptionally ran from July 1 to Dec. 31, 2016.
Earlier this week, Christian Dior Couture posted first-quarter revenues of 506 million euros, or $539 million at average exchange rates, up 18 percent versus the same period a year ago. At constant exchange rates, sales rose 17 percent, compared with 12 percent in the previous quarter.
Retail sales revenue rose 19 percent at actual exchange rates and 18 percent at constant exchange rates, boosted by the positive reception for Maria Grazia Chiuri’s first ready-to-wear and accessories collections for the house, it reported.
“The results are very encouraging with regard to her designs,” Sidney Toledano, vice-chairman and ceo of Christian Dior Group, told the annual meeting.
The meeting approved the nomination of Maria Luisa Loro Piana, the widow of Sergio Loro Piana, to the board of directors of the group.