The Investment Side of Philately - Part 3

Author - Richard Lehmann | Monday, 01 April 2019

 You can look back to the 2014 sale of the British Guiana 1 cent magenta stamp for $9.5 million as the wake- up call to the investment potential of stamps. This stamp had not changed hands for 24 years, when it last sold for $935,000, yielding a 913% increase or an average of 38% a year. It was assumed that this was an exceptional rate of return since the stamp was unique and had a great deal of provenance. But a closer examination demonstrates that for investment grade stamps, its appreciation was hardly exceptional and that the bigger story is how investors will be the salvation of this industry.

            As far back as December 21, 1992 in an article titled “The Stamp Arbs” Forbes magazine noted the investment opportunities in stamps and cited the research on stamp values being promoted by myself as an investment adviser and lifetime stamp collector.  I used securities research metrics to evaluate the investment potential of individual stamps.  My company, StampFinder then published a stamp selection guide titled “Best Buys in Postage Stamps” wherein we selected over 7,000 stamps worldwide and predicted their investment potential.  Fast forward 25 years and let’s examine the results. 

            In a series of 3 articles in the ASDA’s publication The American Stamp Dealer & Collector, of which this is the concluding article, I lay out the case for why stamps should be considered as an investment alternative much as works of art and coins.  In Part 1, published in the February issue, there is a list of 6,144 recommended unused stamps worth today $2,860,000 which had appreciated 195.5% or 7.8% a year.  In Part 2, published in March, a similar investment in 4,164 used stamps now worth $13,807,210 had appreciated 255.5% or 10.2% per year.  In terms of the appreciation of individual used stamps during this time period, the British Guiana at 913% ranked at only the 512th highest appreciating stamp!  Better yet; the price of the 511 higher ranked items cost an average of only $470 and rose to $4,078, a 7,676% increase.  Fewer than 1% of my recommendations showed a loss.  Few of my securities recommendations to my clients showed similar results over that same time period.  But can stamps repeat such stellar results?

The stamp market has been in decline, price wise, since the Internet became the principal vehicle for stamp buying precisely because it has greatly improved price transparency and broadened competition.  Anyone can become a stamp dealer today with little more than a computer and grandpa’s collection.  But this is only the beginning of the changes brought by the Internet.  Changes which will take decades to fully play out.  Demographics also play a part since about four collectors are dying for every new one.  Today this creates an excess supply problem which also drives down prices.  But do these factors affect the market in a uniform way?  Let’s look at this problem in a more nuanced fashion.

            Over 40% of stamps in the market sell for less than $1 and about another 20% below $5.  This is the bulk of the stamp universe and what is in the hands of collectors.  The stamps that I qualify as investment grade were issued before 1950 and are priced at $25 and above.  Their quantities are very small compared to stamps issued since 1950, but they probably represent 80% of the total value of stamps in the market place.  1950 is used as a cutoff since it marks a point in time when stamp usage began to decline while postal authorities worldwide cranked up new stamp issuance to exploit the hobby.  This resulted in new stamps being issued in such large quantities that they will never appreciate in value.  I use $25 as a cutoff since stamps that have been outstanding from 68 to 170 years and have achieved this value thereby establish a minimum of provenance.  In short, the stamp industry is a bifurcated market where the vast majority of the participants are hobbyists dealing with a bloated inventory and an excess of new issuance versus a smaller, wealthier group of investment oriented collectors with a shrinking inventory but growing participation. 

            Looking at appreciation potential for stamps, we see that the hobbyist collectors are in a market where there are close to a million different postage stamps most of which were issued in excessive quantities and face a declining base of participants.  In contrast, the investor group face a static population of about 50,000 different stamps, issued in much more limited quantities.  Quantities that are constantly declining due to decades of poor storage, mishandling and loss.  Investor demand is not driven by demographics, but by wealth.  They are fewer in numbers, but they purchase stamps in quantity because they considers them a good investment.  The fact that investment rated stamps are of high unit value is an attraction to these investor, but a constraint for the collector with limited means.

            Who are these investors and why would they want to buy stamps?  There are today millions of individuals worldwide with more money than they will ever need.  Such people are looking to diversify their assets into different type of investments including tangible collectibles like art, coins or antique cars.  This may be due to living in a country with an unstable economy, limited investment options, a volatile currency or repressive politics.  They may be facing foreign exchange control problems which limit their use of the banking system or they may be engaged in activities, legal and illegal, where the banking system or cash is a hindrance. These are people whose main interested is preserving what they already have rather than growing it.  Hence, for these investors, price appreciation is not even a requirement.  Yes, such investors are also seeking safety and what is safer than an investment with a century or more of positive returns.  It also doesn’t hurt that stamps are such a portable collectible and of unknown worth to non-collectors, i.e. 98% of the universe.       

            The growth of investor participation in the stamp market is held back mainly by their lack of information of how good an investment option it can be and by the difficulty of putting together a sizable portfolio of other than trophy caliber stamps.  The appreciation potential here is huge given the trillions of investment dollars sitting in banks worldwide.  Given the size of the investment stamp market, as little as one billion dollars would have a huge impact on the prices of investment caliber stamps.  Making these stamps more available in quantity will be remedied over time by information transparency and through the advent of blockchain technology for this industry.  Information transparency is also in the works to make stamp selection and buying by non-collectors easier.  USID, Inc. through its website is providing its guidance of which stamps to consider for investment purposes.  Selection is based on metrics that take into consideration not just philatelic metrics but also, the currency, population, politics and economics of the countries of issuance.  Certified identification and grading of stamps is also essential and becoming more common.  Professional Stamp Experts, a stamp identification and grading service is working with some of the more popular Internet sales site to streamline the availability of genuine, graded material.

            Many dealers in the stamp industry disparage the idea of promoting stamps as an investment.  This bias is not driven by their understanding of investing but rather, by emotions driven by their love of the hobby.  But others may just resent having to compete with investors at stamp auctions where an investor can always afford to bid more since he doesn’t have to consider immediate markup and resale.  To the stamp dealer community I have a clear message – WAKE UP!  Your well-being is not in attracting children and new adult hobbyists.  Most will never find a need to buy other than cheap stamps.  One new investment buyer is worth a hundred new collectors to you.  Don’t risk facing a retirement trying to sell-off your bloated inventory of cheap stamps on the Internet in competition with retired collectors for who this is all great fun. 

To the stamp investor I have an equally clear message – BUY TODAY!  The price appreciation by investment grade stamps for the last 25 years is only the beginning of a massive worldwide search for alternative investments.  The fact that investors are so willing to pour billions of dollars into crypto currencies or accept negative yields on European bonds demonstrates just how good an alternative investment stamps can be. Prices today reflect a buying opportunity the likes of which you will not see again in this lifetime.  At the right price, even buy them from a dealer who still doesn’t know the difference between an investment and an infatuation.

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