HMV dying has nothing to do with Amazon's tax avoidance

How do you fight a behemoth which needn't profit?

The death of HMV is undoubtedly due to competition from Amazon in particular and the internet in general. There's a lot of rosy-eyed reminiscing about the chain from people who apparently haven't been in it for a decade or so – it was, in many ways, a terrible shop – but the fact that it represents (represented?) 38 per cent of the entire physical music market suggests that it isn't just dying because it was run badly. There may be something fundamentally untenable about high-street music retail.

(Though that untenability only necessarily applies to chains; it may be the case that independent record shops, like Rough Trade, have something to offer which the internet can't out-compete them on)

But I'm uncomfortable about the meme going round that Amazon only has the advantage it does over HMV because of its tax-avoiding ways.

It's certainly the case that Amazon's, er, tax planning gives it an advantage. For instance, it charges 20 per cent VAT in ebooks, but only returns 3 per cent of it to the Luxembourgish exchequer, taking advantage of the discrepancy in the rates between where it is based and where it carries out its business. And, until the loophole was closed in April last year, Amazon managed to avoid charging any VAT at all on goods below £18 by shipping them from the Channel Islands.

But even without those avoidance strategies, HMV would have found it impossible to compete with Amazon, because it's a company which simply plays a different game from all others.

Amazon's entire strategy to date is to release loss-leader after loss-leader, building its share of the market – and the number of markets it operates in – to astronomical levels, all while promising jam tomorrow.

Take the Kindle owner's lending library. That's a project which offers free access to ebooks for Amazon Prime subscribers – Amazon's flat-rate free next-day-delivery program – who have Kindles. It is clearly a loss leader, aimed to drive Kindle sales and Amazon Prime subscriptions. But both of those are, themselves, loss leaders. Amazon makes no money on its flagship Kindle model, the Paperwhite, and while it doesn't reveal the figures, most analysts agree that it also loses money on Amazon Prime.

The company has revenues of the same magnitude as Apple, but profits at the same magnitude as Games Workshop. It has managed to convince an entire class of investors to give it money and not ask for anything back save continued growth. In short, it's a multi-billion pound company being treated like it's a start-up.

That is something which HMV cannot compete with. Even if online retail didn't have intrinsic advantages over brick-and-mortar – with lower fixed costs, larger potential markets and a near-infinite potential for keeping things in stock – and even if Amazon paid full British tax on everything it does, HMV still couldn't offer prices that matched Amazon's, because HMV has to make a profit on what it sells.

That's not actually a bad thing in the short-term. What Amazon's strategy amounts to in the short-term is a massive transfer of wealth from its investors to its customers — at least compared to the non-Amazon alternative. In the long-term, it must result in one of two things: the bubble bursting, and the company being forced by shareholders to stop sacrificing profit for market share; or a consolidation of its monopoly, allowing it to raise prices because every other potential competitor has been driven out of business. Neither of those outcomes sound as good.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.