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

Leader: Theresa May and the resurgence of the state

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years.

Theresa May entered office in more tumultuous circumstances than any other prime minister since 1945. The UK’s vote to leave the European Union was a remarkable rebuke to the political and business establishment and an outcome for which few had prepared. Mrs May recognised that the result was more than a revolt against Brussels. It reflected a deeper alienation and discontent. Britain’s inequalities of wealth and opportunity, its regional imbalances and its distrusted political class all contributed to the Remain campaign’s ­defeat. As she said in her speech in Birmingham on 11 July: “Make no mistake, the referendum was a vote to leave the European Union, but it was also a vote for serious change.”

When the financial crisis struck in 2007-2008, David Cameron, then leader of the opposition, was caught out. His optimistic, liberal Conservative vision, predicated on permanent economic growth, was ill-suited to recession and his embrace of austerity tainted his “modernising” project. From that moment, the purpose of his premiership was never clear. At times, austerity was presented as an act of pragmatic bookkeeping; at others, as a quest to shrink the state permanently.

By contrast, although Mrs May cautiously supported Remain, the Leave vote reinforced, rather than contradicted, her world-view. As long ago as March 2013, in the speech that signalled her leadership ambitions, she spoke of the need to confront “vested interests in the private sector” and embrace “a more strategic role” for the state. Mrs May has long insisted on the need to limit free movement of people within the ­European Union, and anticipated the causes of the Leave vote. The referendum result made the national reckoning that she had desired inevitable.

More than any of her recent predecessors, the Prime Minister seems willing to challenge the economic and political orthodoxies of the past 35 years. She has promised worker representation on company boards, binding shareholder votes on executive pay, improved corporate governance and stricter controls on foreign takeovers.

The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has set the ­Labour Party on a similar course, stating in his conference speech that the “winds of globalisation” are “blowing against the belief in the free market and in favour of intervention”. He pointedly criticised governments which did not try to save their domestic steel industries as China dumped cheap steel on to global markets.

We welcome this new mood in politics. As John Gray wrote in our “New Times” special issue last week, by reasserting the role of the state as the final guarantor of social ­cohesion, Mrs May “has broken with the neoliberal model that has ruled British politics since the 1980s”.

The Prime Minister has avoided the hyperactive style of many new leaders, but she has deviated from David Cameron’s agenda in several crucial respects. The target of a national Budget surplus by 2020 was rightly jettisoned (although Mrs May has emphasised her commitment to “living within our means”). Chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement on 23 November will be the first test of the government’s ­fiscal boldness. Historically low borrowing costs have strengthened the pre-existing case for infrastructure investment to support growth and spread prosperity.

The greatest political ­challenge facing Mrs May is to manage the divisions within her party. She and her government must maintain adequate access to the European single market, while also gaining meaningful control of immigration. Her statist economic leanings are already being resisted by the free-market fundamentalists on her benches. Like all prime ministers, Mrs May must balance the desire for clarity with the need for unity.

“Brexit means Brexit,” she has repeatedly stated, underlining her commitment to end the UK’s 43-year European
affair. If Mrs May is to be a successful and even transformative prime minister, she must also prove that “serious change” means serious change and a determination to create a society that does not only benefit the fortunate few. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories