Feb

19

Penny BlackFeb 10 was the first "snow day" in New York in three years where kids don't have to go to school and when I was a boy, we greeted the snow days with alacrity as it meant we could hop on the subway and visit the stamp dealers on Nassau Street and spend a quarter on some rarities. Apparently there are few if any stamp collectors left among kids today because other activities crowded them out. I base this on direct testimony from Stanley Gibbons and the fact that there are no stamps offered for sale in the newspapers anymore as well as published reports from stamp magazines themselves. This is a tragedy since stamps provide so many benefits in geography, art, history, economics, categorization, collecting, and patience, foreign exchange, printing, and topical interests.

In honor of the snow day, I thought I should enumerate some trends I have noted from my reading of the literature. Dimson is seminal. There is a seminal paper on investment returns from stamps available that does for stamps what DMS and Fisher, Lorie and Ibbotsen have done for stocks. They report that the returns from stamps over the last 100 years have been about 2% a year worse than stocks and 3- 4% above bonds. Adjusted for systematic risk and standard deviation the returns are comparable to stocks. There are so many important and intriguing points covered in that paper that I must refer you to the original. However, a few that I noted are that stamps hardly have had a down year during the last 100. The cost of getting in and out is about 25%. The returns from high priced stamps are similar to those of low priced stamps. The boom years for stamps were 2008 and the late 1970s and like stocks these days they have a few 20 year periods where the returns have been flat especially during the early first and last 20 years of the 20th century. The market for collectible stamps is 10 billion a year, higher than the fine art market in total. The number of collectors is about 50 times higher in Germany per capita than in the US: 1 in 20 in Germany versus 1 in 1000. There are an estimated 20 to 50 million collectors in China. It was previously illegal to collect stamps in China under Mao so there is a surging demand especially for the old issues that none in China were allowed to buy. The price of many low priced issues in stamps has appreciated more than the high priced issues becuase people didn't take good care of them. A nice example are the first stamps issued in the US and the Columbia Expedition sets. The price to weight ratio of stamps is among the highest in the world and part of their value is their portability. The upside down fixed income "Sponsor" has bought 100 million worth of stamps and believes that their value is correlated with GNP. Dimson has a nice set of regressions showing the systematic beta of stamps about 0.2 when adjusting for various Fisher type effects in lags in pricing. (The Dimson and Spaenjarie article)

Stanley Gibbons has a nice index of the 100 rarest British stamps, which are the most collectible, as is their silver, and this correlates well with the Dimson estimates, even though there is much spurious lookback effect in it. There is general agreement that the current collectors in stamps are those who were introduced to it before the 70s and now have the income to augment their portfolios. Very few new collectors are coming in from the US and England. In view of the 25% transaction cost of buying and selling stamps, one could not recommend them as an investment. A good investor would never see his stamps because the values regrettably depend almost entirely with a range of 500% for the same stamp based on condition. Thus, only long holding periods like the 40 years that Dimson uses would seem appropriate. But in 40 years the demand from the kids of today would seem to be likely to be small because they don't collect now or even know what a letter is in many cases. If one were going to invest, one would probably confine his activities to German speaking lands and Asia, and England which still is the rule of the sea as far as collectibles goes and is likely to maintain that edge. One should not rule out the changing value of stamps as a hedge against increases in the service rate on gains and lifetime earnings. One would be interested readers' thoughts on this alternative asset.

Sam Marx comments:

Don't buy retail. Place classified ads in Linn's, bidding close to wholesale prices and/or join the NY Stamp Dealers Club and buy close to wholesale there. If you know stamps it is hard to lose money but the amount you can make is small compared to stocks. In my opinion, if you still want to get involved in this type of endeavor, coins are a better choice. Spilled coffee can destroy your stamp investment.

Alan Millhone commments:

A MMy stamp collecting began one Christmas when I was seven and my parents gave me a Coronet stamp album. I still have it and over the years have expanded my collection. Guess at heart I am a collector and the upsurge in values has been a side benefit. As in all collectibles condition is important. One never has to apologize when selling quality items. To date I have never sold anything from my collection. None of my grandsons have any interest in stamp collecting. My daughter collected some as a youth but quit. I look at stamps as little pieces of paper with bits of history printed on each stamp. Stamps are an excellent way for youngsters to learn about countries and where they are on the map. Something many youth cannot do today. As a youth I dealt by mail with HE Harris , Zenith and Garcelon stamp firms. Stamps could be used today in grade school as a teaching tool. Queen Elizabeth maintains the Royal Collection. Spink etc. has helped the Royals add to this most valuable collection since the Penny Black was introduced. I don't collect any modern stamps and the early US are beautiful esp. newspaper and periodicals. My best friend is Greek and we collect the early Hermes. I like to get out my stamps in the Winter months. I like early stampless covers of my area. Penny post cards and post cards depicting Checkers ( a cross collectible). Cut squares is another area I like and Trieste A and B and AMG-FTT. Stamps as you said is a yearly multi billion dollar business. Auction firms like Greg Manning is publicly traded and deals with collectors all over the world.

Rocky Humbert responds:

A slightly different way at looking at this is the fact that domestic postage rates have handily beaten inflation since 1958. Last February, I went "all in" and purchased a trove of USPS Forever Stamps. (My local postal clerk was perplexed, to say the least.) See: http://onehonestman.wordpress.com/2009/02/28/warren-buffett-deer-poop-and-postage ,  Yet if one extrapolates the trend of the last fifty years, this "investment" will handily beat CPI inflation going forward. The Chair's cited paper is interesting. Yet before drawing any conclusions, one should study how stamps have performed compared with other ephemera … such as private letters from Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Hank Paulson. Given the rise of email and the demise of private letters, one might speculate that collecting the written letters may have a historical significance and scarcity value in the future that bests the postage stamps? Details on the forever stamp: http://www.usps.com/communications/newsroom/2007/sr07_011.htm

Russell Sears writes:

While I do not know the first thing about stamps collecting, the Chair's story reminded me of my 3rd grade winter in Titusville, PA. It was close enough to Lake Erie to get hammered by lake effect snow. I would take all the money I owned, (under 15 bucks) and go to the bank and ask for rolls of pennies, nickels or dimes. Shift through them for collectible dates.

The wheat backed pennies, were still fairly common in change. While the silver nickels and dimes quickly grew scarce. The rare one I found were treasured, more than the bought silver. I can still grab a handful of coins shake them and tell you if one is silver.

The ladies at the bank were always gracious and used the machines to re-roll them when I returned a pile of pennies to the bank. Most likely because I was the rare customer on those snowy days, and it was always evident that I walked/ran that mile to the bank on entering.

However, my interest in stamps, now is for the art work. Stamps and their press have some of the best miniature work available.

Plus the interest in special commemorative editions always catch my interest after the press have stopped.
I think the interest in the 50 states quarters and bicentennial quarters may signal that these limited edition and artist designs may be the future of trading stamps, In this large volume nearly reproductive limitless world we live, uniqueness can thrive.

Victor Niederhoffer responds: 

I would add to the erudite Floridian's remark that the vigorish of 25% that Dimson notes, which is in line with or ever too small versus the reported P&L of Gibbons, does not take into account the grading differential where if you bring a stamp in to sell it's very fine but if you buy it, the condition is perfect and flawless, adding another 25% at least to the vigorish.

Alan Millhone comments:

On grading, perhaps a discussion of "slabbed" stamps and coins is warranted on grading services in business today.

Alston Mabry comments:

Does not take into account the grading differential where if you bring a stamp in to sell it's very fine but if you buy it, the condition is perfect and flawless, adding another 25% at least to the vigorish. Certainly reminds one of:

Strong Buy

Buy

Hold

Sell

Strong Sell

and the increase in churn thus promoted.


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