Why Dell must suffer in private

Third biggest PC maker is still a PC maker.

So Michael Dell and a private equity group have bought Dell and taken it private. It’s all Steve Jobs’ fault. If that turtleneck-wearing maverick hadn’t believed in tablet computers, people would still be buying PCs, running Microsoft Windows – and still be waiting the best part of a minute for the things to turn on. But Jobs did believe in the iPad, and so did the 15 million customers who bought the first generation.

Since then tablets from Apple, Samsung, Amazon, Acer and others have simply exploded. Analyst firm Gartner recently confirmed what we all knew already: that tablets are eating into PC sales. The firm said in the fourth quarter of last year, global PC shipments declined 4.9 per cent, while in EMEA shipments declined even faster - 9.6 per cent.

But that’s not the only problem for Dell. Its core PC business also faced very stiff competition from market leader HP and number two, the Chinese manufacturer Lenovo, which several years ago bought the rights to IBM’s ThinkPad brand. In the fourth quarter, HP retained its market lead but sales were flat year on year. Lenovo grew sales 8.2 per cent; Dell lost 2 per cent. Indeed among the top five vendors, only Lenovo saw any growth.

To be losing market share in a market that is itself in decline is bad news, very bad news. Competition from rivals, tablets and even smartphones has also brought price pressure in a market that already had relatively slim margins. The other problem is that while Dell did come up with some of its own inventions, it left most of the PC innovation to Microsoft and Intel – Dell’s biggest early innovation was in the brutal efficiency of its supply chain. These days, it turns out the likes of Lenovo and Acer can play that game too. Meanwhile Dell’s own tablets, such as the Streak, have largely failed to capture consumers’ imagination. Add it all up and in its latest quarter Dell saw profits slide 47 per cent.

Shareholders saw the cracks appearing and Dell’s stock started to slide. There’s serious concern that the issues are neither temporary nor easy to fix. Michael Dell has talked about the idea of taking Dell private for a few years now, and after several weeks that saw leaks that it was about to come to pass, yesterday the deal was announced.

In a $24.4 bn leveraged buyout, Michael Dell becomes the largest individual shareholder, with a 14 per cent stake. The other big investor is private equity firm Silver Lake Partners, but there’s also a $2 billion loan from Microsoft, which has an obvious interest in seeing Dell survive. Other investors include MSD Capital, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Barclays, Credit Suisse and RBC Capital Markets.

At least one analyst thinks there’s a flaw in the plan, because it needs shareholder approval. While the price being offered for the shares is a 25% premium on Dell's closing share price of $10.88 on January 11, just before the rumours of the buy-out began, it's still way off the $17.61 that the shares were trading for a year ago, and offers little premium over Dell's more recent stock price. "I think the key question here is will shareholders approve this deal, because there is practically no premium where the stock is trading," Sterne Agee analyst Shaw Wu said.
But assuming they do go for the deal, what next for Dell? Rival HP has already issued a statement saying the deal creates “uncertainty” around Dell, which is probably true. What is certain is that Dell is by no means out of the woods. Having see the writing on the wall it’s been in transition for some time now, trying to become less reliant on the PC side of the business by moving more into software and services, as well as higher-end computer technology like servers, networking and data storage equipment.

Dell has been on an acquisition spree to make it look more like an IBM, HP or Oracle. In 2009 it bought Perot systems for IT services; in 2010 Compellent for storage; in 2011 SecureWorks for security and Force10 for data centre networking. Last year it bought Wyse for thin clients, SonicWALL and Appsure for security and Quest for systems management. That’s fine and dandy, but having not previously been particularly acquisitive, it has some integration challenges to overcome first.

So what will Dell do differently, assuming shareholders approve its plan? According to CFO Brian Gladden, not a lot. He told Reuters that it will continue along the same path, but that, “Under a new private company structure, we will have time and flexibility to really pursue and realise the end-to-end solutions strategy. We will be able to pursue organic and inorganic investment and we won't have the scrutiny and limitations associated with operating as a public company."

But if Dell really wants to look like an HP, Oracle or IBM, it’s got a lot more acquisitions yet to do. That may be harder now that it can’t easily buy companies with its shares (although its backers do have deep pockets). Ultimately, it remains to be seen whether this deal marks the beginning of the end for Dell.

Apart from a lack of shareholder scrutiny, it’s not clear exactly what Dell gains here. If it really believes in its turnaround strategy, its stock would have recovered as its results improved. According to Gladden, “We are generally very, very encouraged by the future here." It’s that one word, "generally", that should leave everyone under no illusion that Dell still has some fundamental challenges to overcome.

Photograph: Getty Images

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?