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.

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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.