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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Donald Trump is the Republican nominee. What now?

So a Clinton-Trump general election is assured – a historically unpopular match-up based on their current favourability ratings.

That’s it. Ted Cruz bowed out of the Republican presidential race last night, effectively handing the nomination to Donald Trump. “From the beginning I’ve said that I would continue on as long as there was a viable path to victory,” Cruz said. “Tonight, I’m sorry to say it appears that path has been foreclosed.”

What foreclosed his path was his sizeable loss to Trump in Indiana. Cruz had bet it all on the Hoosier State, hoping to repeat his previous Midwest victories in Iowa and Wisconsin. He formed a pact with John Kasich, whereby Kasich left the anti-Trump field clear for Cruz in Indiana in return for Cruz not campaigning in Oregon and New Mexico. He announced Carly Fiorina as his vice-presidential nominee last week, hoping the news would give him a late boost.

It didn’t work. Donald Trump won Indiana handily, with 53% of the vote to Cruz’s 37%. Trump won all of the state’s nine congressional districts, and so collected all 57 of the convention delegates on offer. He now has 1,014 delegates bound to him on the convention’s first ballot, plus 34 unbound delegates who’ve said they’ll vote for him (according to Daniel Nichanian’s count).

That leaves Trump needing just 189 more to hit the 1,237 required for the nomination – a number he was very likely to hit in the remaining contests before Cruz dropped out (it’s just 42% of the 445 available), and that he is now certain to achieve. No need to woo more unbound delegates. No contested convention. No scrambling for votes on the second ballot. 

Though Bernie Sanders narrowly won the Democratic primary in Indiana, he’s still 286 pledged delegates short of Hillary Clinton. He isn’t going to win the 65% of remaining delegates he’d need to catch up. Clinton now needs just 183 more delegates to reach the required 2,383. Like Trump, she is certain to reach that target on 7th June when a number of states vote, including the largest: California.

So a Clinton-Trump general election is assured – a historically unpopular match-up based on their current favourability ratings. But while Clinton is viewed favourably by 42% of voters and unfavourably by 55%, Trump is viewed favourably by just 35% and unfavourably by a whopping 61%. In head-to-head polling (which isn’t particularly predictive this far from election day), Clinton leads with 47% to Trump’s 40%. Betting markets make Clinton the heavy favourite, with a 70% chance of winning the presidency in November.

Still, a few questions that remain as we head into the final primaries and towards the party conventions in July: how many Republican officeholders will reluctantly endorse Trump, how many will actively distance themselves from him, and how many will try to remain silent? Will a conservative run as an independent candidate against Trump in the general election? Can Trump really “do presidential” for the next six months, as he boasted recently, and improve on his deep unpopularity?

And on the Democratic side: will Sanders concede gracefully and offer as full-throated an endorsement of Clinton as she did of Barack Obama eight years ago? It was on 7th June 2008 that she told her supporters: “The way to continue our fight now, to accomplish the goals for which we stand is to take our energy, our passion, our strength, and do all we can to help elect Barack Obama, the next president of the United States.” Will we hear something similar from Sanders next month? 

Jonathan Jones writes for the New Statesman on American politics.