PARIS — Will 2017 herald a turnaround for the beleaguered watch sector?
Figures published in the next few weeks will be closely scrutinized for signs that the industry is turning the corner after a year weighed down by overstocking, weak oil prices and changes in the behavior of customers in China, the world’s leading market for luxury timepieces.
Exports of Swiss timepieces fell 10.4 percent between January and November 2016, their worst performance since 2009, according to the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry. Figures for December are due to be published on Jan. 26, with analysts looking for further signs of a turnaround in Greater China, following encouraging signs in November.
Compagnie Financière Richemont, the parent of brands including Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre and IWC, is scheduled to publish revenues for its fiscal third quarter on Jan. 12. To offset falling sales, the company has launched an inventory buyback program, a cost-cutting plan at Dunhill and 170 jobs cuts at its Piaget and Vacheron Constantin brands.
Investors were encouraged by the company’s statement that October was a positive month for organic growth, even though overall Swiss watch exports fell 16.4 percent during the month, their steepest drop of the year. Richemont shares closed up 8.3 percent following the announcement on Nov. 4.
Swatch Group, the world’s largest watchmaker with brands including Swatch, Omega and Breguet, officially plans to issue key 2016 figures on Feb. 16, though it regularly releases its financial information ahead of schedule. Last year, it published the report — including an outlook for the year ahead — on Feb. 3.
The company said in July it expected to end 2016 with flat net sales, despite a drop of 11.4 percent in the first half. But analysts are skeptical it will achieve its target in light of the poor Swiss watch export figures, which closely mirror Swatch Group’s performance.
The Biel, Switzerland-based group also has excess inventory, but has refused to cut staff despite shrinking margins. However, Swatch Group has threatened “massive price hikes” for its component deliveries to other watchmakers after Switzerland’s competition regulator denied it the right to sell its surplus stocks.
Barclays Bank on Wednesday reiterated its share price target of 70 Swiss francs for Richemont and raised its price target for Swatch Group to 290 Swiss francs from 230 francs. Richemont traded at 66.55 francs, or $64.85 at current exchange rates, and Swatch Group at 312.70 francs, or $304.69, at 11:15 a.m. CET.
Despite uncertain prospects, both companies remain attractive to investors, according to Barclays. Richemont is trading on 25.7 times estimated earnings in 2017, while Swatch Group has a price-to-earnings ratio of 24.1, according to the bank’s forecasts. This compares with a luxury industry average of 22.2 percent, it said.
Barclays said the outlook for Richemont is improving and the company’s December sales should benefit from an earlier Chinese New Year, which in 2017 falls on Jan. 28. “We assume a flat Q3 performance with weak watches offset by a robust performance from jewelry and the other categories,” analysts Julian Easthope and Julie Zhuang said in a report.
However, their overall view of the watch sector was cautious. They noted that although there is still positive momentum in the watch names, no single economic event could be blamed for the segment’s decline in 2016, raising the prospect that timepieces could be falling out of favor.
“Without a significant pickup in demand we would expect continued margin contraction,” the analysts said. “We believe the industry remains over-supplied and capacity will need to be cut or capacity utilization will fall.”
In the latest sign of the challenges facing the sector, Aldo Magada this week left his position as chief executive officer of Zenith. Jean-Claude Biver, president of the watch division at parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, is taking over the interim management of the Swiss watch brand, whose performance has lagged that of its stablemates Tag Heuer and Hublot.