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Oodles of money to spend Binge: Rising stock prices have generated vast sums, impressive portions of which are being deployed in an upscale Christmas shopping spree.


Somebody walked into Hunt Valley Travel recently and booked an $11,000 honeymoon, a 10-day, island-hopping idyll to the South Pacific.

At Kent Fisher Furs in Towson, a customer left with a $40,000 Russian golden-sable coat.

Dahne & Weinstein Jewelers in Lutherville sold almost all its fine German gold -- starting at $5,000 per piece -- many days before Christmas. "That's the first time that's happened," said owner Stephen Weinstein.

Across metro Baltimore and, indeed, many parts of the country, Tickle Me Elmo dolls aren't the only things vanishing from shelves. Luxury goods and services are selling as they haven't since perhaps the 1980s, topping off the state's tax tills and lathering creamy foam on an already bubbly Christmas economy.

Economists credit the usual agents of retail fluency: consumer confidence, low unemployment, stable politics.

But there's another factor. Simply put, some people have become very, very rich, thanks to a stock market that has appreciated by almost a fourth this year, doubled in six years and multiplied eightfold since 1980.

"The surge in stock prices is helping to support consumer spending, particularly among upper-income individuals, those who own the preponderance of stocks," said Mark Zandi, an economist with Regional Financial Associates Inc. in West Chester, Pa.

The main beneficiaries, he said are "the high-end retailers, the Nordstoms, the Bloomingdales, the Lord and Taylors."

Rich people become so by saving their money, not spending it.

The Federal Reserve calculates that for every $1 increase in household net worth, only 2.5 cents will get spent in the real economy over the next two years.

But when stock values double and then quadruple again in a decade and a half, the cents add up. In only two years, U.S. households have added $2 trillion in total net worth, Zandi estimates. That's enough to cover federal government expenses for a year, including Social Security payments, with a few hundred million left over.

And many investors are converting stock gains into spending cash.

Maryland's income-tax receipts so far this year have soared 9 percent, which Assistant State Controller Marvin Bond attributed largely to capital-gains taxes on a flurry of securities sales. Higher income- and sales-tax collections prompted the state last week to boost revenue estimates by almost $50 million for this fiscal year.

"I have seen a good number of unsolicited holders of stocks come through our doors seeking to sell some shares," said Myles Larkin, a stockbroker in the Columbia office of Ferris, Baker Watts.

"It seems as though they've dusted them off. After seeing the market reach all-time highs, they say, 'Hey, I've got some stock. Let's see what it's worth.' "

Take Towson State University economist Michael Conte. He recently sold shares of Liz Claiborne, Nike and International Business Machines, which he bought at $48 a few years ago and sold at $121. "Yes, I did buy a few nice things for some folks," he said. "It did have that pattern in the Conte household."

And stock wealth sways spending even when it's only on paper. It makes consumers feel more confident, Zandi said, and a fat brokerage account makes it easier to get a loan.

Despite profits in banking shares and other stocks, "I'm letting things ride right now," said Ed Hale, chairman of First Mariner Bank.

But how's his Christmas list? "I bought more this year than I probably bought any other year," he said, including a future trip with his son to catch northern pike and lake trout in the Arctic Circle.

Stocks have been rising for years, of course, but this year's heights are dizzier than ever, and they coincide with a brighter economic outlook. A year ago, many analysts expected a 1996 recession, which dampened spending at the time.

"To a certain extent, people may be spending last year's money," Conte said.

Whatever its provenance, the money is appearing in area stores and showrooms.

"People are willing to spend more," said Hunt Valley Travel manager Brooke Dowell, whose clients confide in her to the extent that "sometimes I feel like a hairdresser." She added: "In general the trips that are being booked are higher-priced packages. Europe was huge this year. Everybody wants to go to Europe."

The Classic Catering People in Owings Mills noticed a tendency toward more party frills. "Somebody might add shrimp to the buffet for $8 or $10" a person, said principal Ansela Dopkin.

At Kent Fisher Furs, "last year was a very good year, and this year was really great," said Carl Fisher, president. "The mink coat," he added, "is still No. 1."

And Dahne & Weinstein is having its third year in a row of double-digit percentage sales boosts. "In general, you're seeing the Tiffany, Cartier and Winston people having major sales increases, and we are too," Weinstein said. "People are willing to spend now. Around the country, high-end jewelry is really coming back."

Merchants of the well-to-do aren't the only ones helped by buoyant stock. Their charities are cashing in, too. Recently announced gifts of $3 million, $10 million and $55 million to the Johns Hopkins University, for example, are probably coming in the form of shares, tax experts said, not cash.

And for a city its size, Baltimore is rich in the investment houses and banking firms that feed off Wall Street.

Alex. Brown, T. Rowe Price and Legg Mason are having another banner year and are about to lavish meaty year-end bonuses.

Fifty-six people at Alex. Brown pledged at least $10,000 each to the United Way this year, No. 2 in the country.

T. Rowe Price employs 2,630 people now, 450 more than a year ago and almost twice as many as six years ago.

Analysts won't know for a long time exactly how much the stock market is contributing to the overall spending ferment.

Unlike income, which is accounted for annually by the tax authorities, household wealth is hard to measure and is gauged only every few years or so.

But some economic participants believe that, big and bouncy as is, the stock market is just a symptom of a larger reality, a 1990s Zeitgeist that embraces McDonald's Arch Deluxe and Albert Belle's baseball contract along with shiny BMWs and 3-carat diamonds.

"People want to live well again," said furrier Fisher. "They want to eat steaks, smoke cigars and wear furs."

Pub Date: 12/23/96

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