Deflation in the tech industry

Bitcoin fans, take note.

Deflation is bad.

This is not, normally, a controversial thing to say. The idea that low and stable inflation is a good thing is one of the few maxims of economics which is widely held.

Except if you like Bitcoin.

My piece last month looking at how Japan and Bitcoin are both hamstrung by their deflationary economies was meant to highlight the similarity between the two, but it also brought out a difference: whereas Japan is trying to change their economy, Bitcoin fans are trying to change economics.

By far the most common example that they cite is that of the technology sector. That's unsurprising, given people with a lot invested in Bitcoin (both figuratively and literally) tend to be pretty techie. So I'm not being unfair by pointing to Brent McCulloch's comment from last week as typical (I've cleared up the formatting a bit):

Great Article! Your arguments about deflation highlight the exact reason I never buy technology. The whole sector is deflationary!

For example, why would anyone spend their money on an iPad2 now? If they just hold onto their money a bit longer and wait for the iPad3 to come out, the same amount of money will have so much more purchasing power! Why even spend it on that iPad3 at that point, we know the iPad4 is just a year away, right? If they save their money for just 12 more months, for the iPad4, it’ll have so much more effective purchasing power.

This is why no one ever buys technology, their currency is deflating relative to technological products. Don't believe the sales figures from these tech companies, it's all smoke and mirrors I tell you! Smoke and mirrors!

Biting sarcasm.

But the thing is, deflation – or a phenomenon like it – is actually pretty evident in Apple's sales figures. This chart, via Benedict Evans, shows the cyclicality in Apple's sales:

What you're seeing is the company making an ever greater proportion of its sales in the fourth quarter. Not only is that the quarter where the most products are released (the iPad 4 was released in Q4 2012, iPhone 5 one quarter earlier but suffered crippling supply problems until Q4 2012), it's also the one where sales can't be delayed any further. No matter how sure you are that Apple's going to bring out an iPad 5 soon, if you need to buy your dad a present for Christmas, you need to buy it by Christmas.

In other words, the effect of deflation in the market for Apple's products is to bunch all of the sales into the quarter when new products are released and time-sensitive purchases are made.

But there's an even better example of deflation to pick on in the IT industry. In fact, it's one of the most famous business case studies of all time.

In 1981, the Osborne Computer Corporation launched the Osborne 1. It was, by all accounts, a great piece of kit for the time: 64k of RAM, a 5-inch screen and two whole floppy-disk drives, all for just $1,795. What's more, it came packaged in with a collection of software worth almost as much as the entire computer. Sales were fantastic: the company grew from two employees to 3,000 in just a year, and made revenue of $73m.

Then, in early 1983, the "Osborne Executive" was announced. With a 7-inch screen, almost twice the RAM, and even more bundled software, the Osborne 1 was clearly obsolete overnight, and orders fell through the floor. Despite price cuts, unsold inventory piled up, and, by 1983, Osborne declared bankruptcy. The Osborne Executive was never delivered.

That story has come to be known as the Osborne Effect, illustrating to business leaders worldwide the perils of pre-announcing replacements to their own products. But it's also a very literal demonstration of the effects of deflation.

What Osborne announced was a rapid deflation in the cost of an Osborne computer. "Soon," customers were told, "you will be able to get vastly more computer for your money." And customers responded in the only sensible way: they stopped buying Osborne 1s. Starved of cash-flow, the company couldn't even live long enough to release the product which they had touted, and so everyone was worse off.

Deflation does hit the tech sector. Apple may not be going bankrupt as people wait til the iPad 5, but it's losing more and more sales in the early quarters of each year; and other companies have suffered exactly that fate. Bitcoin fans, take note: your favourite counterexample is my favourite example.

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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.