News about major retail chains such as HMV and Blockbuster closing shop inevitably attract greater than usual attention because they sell media content and therefore operate on the edge of the world of entertainment. That said, the demise was fairly obvious to anyone who had read their balance sheets, which have been decimated by technological changes led essentially by Apple but more generically by the broader applications of the Internet and improved hardware.
Selling and renting films respectively, HMV and Blockbuster were a key part of all retail malls and “high” streets in the UK with similar brands in other countries including in Hong Kong and Singapore. The advent of amazon.com was the first shot across their bows; one that both chains failed to heed. As the business of selling books through bookstores evaporated in the late ’90s, the retail chains selling and renting movies and music failed to make the connection between the physical world and the augmented reality shopping of the Internet.
The process was to accelerate with improved software – Apple’s iTunes comes to mind – even as hardware continued to provide an underwhelming experience. The inability to bridge the quality gaps in films and music (or else apply them to an environment where more people were using crummy mobile devices for enjoying the same) simply meant that all competition ended up being about price. This was the wrong battleground and, much like Napoleon’s forces marooned in the harsh Russian winter 200 years ago, the retail chains were destroyed.
Oddly enough, HMV also played a small part in the global financial crisis; one of the largest lawsuits from that era pertained to Guy Hands’ private equity firm Terra Firm filing suit for misrepresentations against its banker, Citibank, over its purchase of EMI from which HMV had been spun off to a separate listing in 1998.
Although the suit was pretty quickly dismissed, opportunities for mirth abounded from the materials provided as part of the proceedings. Such large leveraged buyouts generated billions in loans that were purchased by collateralized loan obligation vehicles, which in turn were partly funded by the shadow banking system that helped to fell the global economy in 2007-08.
In any event, the various reorganization plans filed by HMV management provided fodder for private equity firms on its own; in parallel, Blockbuster went through its own interaction with the forces of competition. While the global business of Blockbuster went into administration in 2010, the company continued to operate in many parts of the world. Last week’s closure of the UK business is a continuation of the global process.
The circle of stupidity
On the other end of the scale from market forces is the circle of stupidity that underpins global monetary policy today.
An industrial version of the HMV/ Blockbuster process of creative destruction is Japan, an article about which I wrote late last year, touching upon the effects of competitive landscape changes ushered in by the pincer grip of South Korea and China at the branded and generic ends of manufacturing respectively; even as sclerotic politics and inane monetary policies end up accelerating the decline. (See The end of Japan as we know it, Asia Times Online, November 27, 2012).
Following the elections, Japan’s monetary policy impetus has moved into aggressive easing as the government and the Bank of Japan attempt to push the yen sharply lower by easing quantitative policy and accelerating the purchase of bonds issued by the US and European governments (the Italians and the Spanish sent a couple of “thank you” notes to the new government, presumably).
Meanwhile, other Asian countries – primarily Korea and China – are increasing their own purchase of Japanese government bonds to offset the effect of a falling yen on their own currencies. And all along, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke and European Central Bank president Mario Draghi are cheerfully printing money by the trillions to support yawning fiscal deficits and to keep their currencies from rising.
Think of the average pensioner anywhere in the Group of Eight leading industrialized nations and the picture is downright depressing. With regular income from bonds and bank accounts whittled down to barely nothing, they are being forced to take on financial risks by purchasing “high dividend” stocks or worse, corporate bonds. These are not folks who are equipped to analyze such risks, let alone manage them.
Businesses go bust when they run out of liquidity, not when they run out of “capital” or any such esoteric concept. Granted that HMV and Blockbuster were so bad that not even all the money sloshing around the global financial system could save them, but that also raises the question of how many companies and governments survive today because of the excess money sloshing around.
At the very least, we know that interest rates and risk premia are severely depressed in G-8 countries and, as a result, across much of the financial world. There are countries that would be considered borderline default where government bond spreads are trading well under 5%, an anomaly that makes no sense irrespective of the “base” funding rate. Similarly, equity markets are getting record inflows at a time when valuations aren’t exactly cheap anywhere in the world.
Such conditions are usually spelt b-u-b-b-l-e; and I entirely hold Bernanke, Draghi and their kin responsible for this state of affairs. There will be time of reckoning later, but for now we will have to live with all the Keynesian rationalization.
Why is Schumpeter important
One of the key defenses used by those seeking to broaden the ambit of monetary policy whilst emptying government coffers is that corporate closures are bad form and cause disruptions for employees and other stakeholders alike. This is indeed true over the short term, but over the longer term the truth is perhaps in the opposite direction and in line with the views of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter on “creative destruction”.
Systems that weed out inefficient capital users end up deploying funds to more deserving users thereby reducing the overall risk of the system and increasing the gap between risky and less risky ventures; this extra compensation therefore ends up attracting more robust capital – and perhaps more appropriate capital for risky ventures.
In contrast to this, folk who lend money to French companies – typically only other French folk – see their risk analysis dulled by constant government intervention and corporate subsidies (internally) to their worst divisions. When the car firm Peugeot decided to shutter some plants and fire workers recently, the howls of protest were loudest from the country’s socialist government, which may however not have quite realized that by denying the company such internal efficiencies they inevitably put the firm at a longer-term disadvantage that increases the chances of a comprehensive collapse at a later date.
Investors in such countries will also be confused as to the correct risk premium for a loss-making company compared to that for a profitable company; because debt is about getting one’s funds back, the question becomes academic if loss-makers are routinely bailed out. This dulls the calculation of risk, inevitably driving inappropriate funds – pension funds and the like – towards risky assets.
That is the reason why the HMV and Blockbuster stories are important. By providing a timely reminder that bad businesses will not survive even the easiest of monetary conditions, they have served to remind all of us of events likely to unfold when the price of money starts adjusting towards more appropriate levels.