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Fund Manager Portrait: Swetha Ramachandran

05 March 2020

Having worked on both the sell side and buy side of the industry, Swetha Ramachandran has been at GAM Investments since 2012 as part of the European equity team. She takes a personal interest in human behaviour and how it impacts consumption in the luxury brand sector.

"The changing nature of the luxury consumer, and the sub-segments in pole position, will be the key drivers of the luxury sector, in my view, for the decade to come. An important way in which digitally native millennial and generation Z consumers signal social status is through showcasing an ‘experiential luxury’ lifestyle on social media channels such as Instagram, which lend themselves more to the sharing of experiences than owning objects.”

Formative years in India

Swetha’s interest in the luxury sector stems in part from her ongoing interest in understanding human behaviour and psychology, and how we choose to express ourselves through what we wear and experience. “I am constantly curious about what ‘luxury’ means to different people – whether it is to indulge in a vintage wine in the company of friends, to derive pleasure from owning a long-desired handbag or iconic piece of jewellery, to purchase a piece of art that one emotionally connects with, or more simply, to have more time, which is the ultimate luxury since we can never make more of it.”

Having spent part of her childhood in India, Swetha says the pace of change there in terms of how people live and how that has been changing is astonishing, and even more so in neighbouring China. “Where access to clean drinking water was once a luxury, today’s generation is far more aspirational, having been accustomed to steady economic growth over the course of their lifetimes. They are more optimistic, and consequently risk taking, across all aspects of their lives – from career to consumption, which is fascinating to analyse.” 

A global view

Swetha has had the chance to live in a number of different countries across the globe; the US, Malaysia, Singapore, France and the UK – and to thus benefit from a wide cultural perspective of varied lifestyles. “It’s hard to say how different my perspective on life is having lived in various places compared with how it may have been if I had only lived in one place. Lots of variables inform these things. But I can say it probably does achieve the clichés of broadening the mind by exposing me to new cultures and languages, which has been enlightening. Certainly as a foodie it has brought me an appreciation of different cuisines.”

Swetha believes this exposure to a range of countries is a useful skillset that has helped her in her investing role, and will continue to do so, particularly with emerging (especially Asian) premium consumption set to be a multi-decade investment theme, with Western-owned brands the key beneficiaries of this trend.

 

Her first role after graduating from university was on the sell side, covering the Asian airline sector at Goldman Sachs in Singapore, then the European consumer sector at Credit Suisse in London, before she moved to the buy side at AllianceBernstein in London covering the consumer sector. She also briefly worked in Paris in the then emerging field of socially responsible investment research and learned about environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues which are now becoming increasingly mainstream in investment analysis.

Swetha joined GAM in 2012 on the European equity team to cover in depth the European consumer and luxury sectors, before taking over management of a luxury brands portfolio. The training she received as an analyst, and the rigorous nature of the job and attention to detail that it requires, have been helpful since she became a fund manager, in her view. “The skillsets are different but highly complementary in terms of understanding the drivers of individual stocks.”

Lessons learned

There have on occasion been tough lessons learned. Having joined AllianceBernstein in June 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis, Swetha says she recommended a beverage stock which was exposed to Russia and which subsequently fell by more than 50%. “It taught me some lessons in behavioural psychology. If you’re going to sell something, sell it early and cut your losses. This particular stock continued to underperform even after we sold it; a bad decision can be ongoing. At the same time, there was a lot of distressed value about. If you did the fundamental work there was the potential to generate real value for clients.”

Swetha has always been interested in consumers and how they act. “In my role covering beverages, for example, I observed how a group of consumers developed a taste for a new drink like Magners Cider back in the mid-2000s. It’s fascinating how human behaviour impacts brand preferences. In the luxury space consumer psychology is crucial. People can get really emotional about a brand.” 

Under the influence

Brands are leveraging consumer psychology, says Swetha, in how they are trying to reach people. “Billboard advertising is more or less dead. We’re now seeing alternative approaches, such as using social media influencers. Brands are trying to generate authenticity – there’s been a community aspect, with people jumping on the bandwagon via hashtags etc. But they have to do this carefully – we’ve also seen examples of brands suffering a backlash in some cultures even though fashion is often about taking risks.” In June this year Nike was reported to have pulled from sale a limited edition line of shoes in China after consumers there objected to its Japanese designer expressing support for the protests in Hong Kong on Instagram.

While she is not active as a sharer, Swetha says she lurks on Instagram and Twitter – the former to monitor brands and how consumers are engaging with them and their new product launches; the latter is useful to monitor real-time feedback to a controversy a brand might be embroiled in although often tends to more noise than signal. “I haven’t been on Facebook in about three years now. I have never tweeted and maybe post an Instagram photo every six months or so… seriously, who’s got time.”

Swetha monitors social media actively to keep on top of changing trends. “As an example, the proliferation of fitness / health & wellness influencers on Instagram starting a few years back is closely correlated with the strong momentum we see for the premium sporting goods brands at the moment.”

“Lifestyles have graduated a lot. When we came out of the financial crisis in 2008 we saw a renewed desire for luxury brands and experiences. In Japan, post the nuclear reactor disaster, again luxury demand increased, as though people needed to connect to something timeless and lasting. And luxury is not just about owning things, but experiencing something, hence the growth in ‘experiential luxury’. At the same time, though, more traditional luxury items remain popular. There was a long queue outside Selfridges recently for the launch of Nike Travis Scott sneakers.”

As for her own brand preferences, Swetha confesses that her time spent in Paris and fondness for the city means she is quite partial to French fashion and luxury brands. “I like the way that they seem to capture the effortless chic that defines the city, even though I acknowledge that Italian design is in many cases objectively superior.”

All the world’s a stage

Away from her day job she is a big fan of the theatre, avidly consuming plays such as the Arthur Miller classic Death of a Salesman. She recently went to see Ivo van Hove’s epic four and a half hour Kings of War, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III delivered in Dutch and including audience interaction, which she describes as “brilliant”.

Exercise and fitness is another pursuit Swetha enjoys, regularly visiting a boxing studio near the office to work off some of those daily frustrations and return invigorated. “You could say I discovered it by chance. I was looking for a gym near our new offices and found the studio to be the closest to walk to. I liked the fast-paced class with motivational music so have stuck with it.”

 

She believes the growing trend for premium health and wellness among all age brackets across the globe lends itself well to the growth of ‘athleisure’ (premium sportswear as a lifestyle choice) and to the prospects of sporting goods companies. Where previously these companies acquired legitimacy through associations with sport champions, increasingly their growth is being driven by collaborations with celebrities such as Beyonce, for example, who will soon be collaborating with Adidas on a joint range.

Travel is something she does a good deal of, both for work and leisure. “When I’m travelling I like to look at what people have in terms of luxury goods. For example in Istanbul recently I noticed quite a few people had Louis Vuitton bags. If I see a brand everywhere that makes me pay attention to it; we’ve seen this with some streetwear trends that makes me think that industry definitely has legs.”

Swetha is also an avid reader, and tries to enhance her travel experiences through fiction and non-fiction – a recent trip to Japan was fruitful in exposing her to the merits of contemporary Japanese fiction. A Cat, a Man and Two Women, by Junichiro Tanizaki, was especially enjoyable, she says, and a re-reading of Pico Iyer’s “The Lady and The Monk” while in Kyoto, many years after she first read it, was particularly resonant.

Commuting to work on the London Underground is made bearable by a near-constant streaming of podcasts about diverse subjects – current favourites are “Pivot”, a weekly update on the US technology sector and “Rough Translation”, where each episode offers a fresh view on cross-cultural topics ranging from the impact of fake news in Ukraine to what Jane Austen means to a group of urban, affluent women in contemporary Pakistan.

A final point to make on luxury, says Swetha, is that it aligns itself well with ESG considerations. “This is particularly the case in the apparel sector. People buy less, but buy better. Handbags and clothing become less disposable, so they’re less likely to end up in landfill. Linked to this, we’ve also seen a growth in luxury goods resale platforms, where companies such as The RealReal are now investable.”

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The information in this document is given for information purposes only and does not qualify as investment advice. Opinions and assessments contained in this document may change and reflect the point of view of GAM in the current economic environment. No liability shall be accepted for the accuracy and completeness of the information. Past performance is no indicator for the current or future development.