Posts tagged ‘Circuit City’

@kevindrum Finds Absolutely Ubiquitous Feature of Regulation to be Mysterious

Kevin Drum simply does not understand why Wall Street might be piling into broadband stocks despite proposed "tough new regulations."  He posits a number of hypotheses -- that Wall Street expected the rules to be worse than they turned out to be.  But this can't be it because the hundreds of pages of rules are still a secret.  He also hypothesizes there might be some nefarious secret loophole buried in the rules Wall Street knows about but we don't.

This is crazy!  How can a reasonably bright person like Drum who writes about the political economy not understand the issue of regulatory capture?  Seriously, I have always figured that the Left, which has a seemingly infinite appetite for regulation, must favor regulation because they find the benefits to out-weight the crony-ist downsides.  Is it really possible Drum is unfamiliar with the downsides altogether, or is he just being coy?

Here is what regulation, particularly utility-style regulation, tends to do -- it locks in current business models and competitors.  It makes it really hard for new entrants to challenge incumbents with innovative new business models or approaches, because regulations have been written based on the old business model and did not take the new one in account.  So a new entrant must begin business by getting regulators to allow their new model, which never happens because by this time incumbents have buildings full of lobbyists aimed at the regulatory process.  Go ask Tesla and Uber and Lyft about how easy it is to enter a heavily regulated business even with a superior new business model.

This is particularly true in the technology world.  The biggest threat to incumbency is someone with a new technology or approach to the technology.  Don't believe me?  I suggest you go to the offices of Netscape or AOL or Lycos or Borders or Circuit City or Radio Shack and interview them about the security of their multi-billion dollar businesses in the face of new online technologies.  At best, regulators put a huge speed bump in the way of competitors, costing them time and money to get their alternative business model approved.  At worst, regulators block new competitors altogether.

I will give you a thought experiment.  Let's say these exact same rules were adopted in the year 2000, when AOL and Earthlink dial-up ruled the internet access world.  Would cable and satellite and DSL have grown as quickly?  I can see the regulators now -- "hey, all the rules specify phone dial up.  There's nothing here about cable TV.  Sorry [Cox, Comcast, whoever] you are going to have to wait until we can write new rules.

The other thing that happens with utility-style regulation is that companies in the business tend to get their returns guaranteed.  Made a bad investment in a competitive market?  Well good luck getting customers to pay extra to bail you out from your bad decision when they have other options.  But what happens when your local power company wastes $10 billion on a nuclear plant that never opens -- it gets built into your rate base!

In the cast of broadband, they are locked in what business school students would see as a classic supply chain battle.  Upstream companies like Netflix supply content via downstream broadband companies.  Consumers are only willing to pay a certain amount for this content, so the upstream and downstream fight a lot over who gets what share of that consumer $.    This happens everywhere in the business world, from Cable TV to oil refining to selling TV's at Wal-Mart.  There is a real danger that broadband will lose this fight in the future -- but not now.  Regulated industries never die, they appeal to their regulators for help.

As of yesterday, Wall Street is looking at broadband companies and realizing that they are now largely immune from competition and some level of minimum returns are likely now gauranteed forever.  Consumers should hate this, but what's not to love for Wall Street?

Postscript:  Kevin Drum describes the new regulation this way:  "Basically, under Wheeler's proposal, cable companies would no longer be able to sign special deals to provide certain companies with faster service in return for higher payments."  This is a bit like describing the Patriot Act as a law to force people to take their shoes off at the airport.  Yes, it does that narrow thing, but it does a LOT else.  The proposal is hundreds of freaking pages long.  It does not take hundreds of pages to do the narrow little niche thing Drum (like most neutrality supporters) wants.

This Administration has cleverly taken this one tiny concern people have and have used it as an excuse to do a major regulatory takeover of the Internet.  This is a huge Trojan Horse. But I have already ranted about the details of that and you can read that here.

Can You Name a Retailer Who Has Had A Second Act?

Apparently, the nose dive at Best Buy is accelerating.  Watching retail just as a consumer over the last few decades, it seems that whenever a retailer starts going down the drain, they never recover.  Calls are made for more visionary management to reposition the company, but I can't remember any such effort ever working.  The slide may be fast - Circuit City, CompUSA, Borders - or slow - Sears, A&P - but the nose dive never seems to reverse.  The only retailer I can possibly remember really executing a fairly large shift was maybe Gap from just being a Levi's outlet to whatever it is today.   And maybe Radio Shack, which is sort of this zombie you think has been outdated for like three decades but keeps hanging on.

James Taggart is Alive and Well

In my Forbes column this week, I publish an essay I wrote for an Americans for Prosperity event commemorating Milton Friedman's birthday.  A brief excerpt:

Having once been successful through excellence, leading businesses typically get lazy and senescent, and become vulnerable to more innovative, lower-cost or more nimble new competitors.  Sears lost its electronics sales to Circuit City, which in turn succumbed to Best Buy, which is now struggling to compete with Wal-Mart, who is being challenged by

Unfortunately, businesses that were once successful can feel a sense of entitlement, believing that this new competition is somehow unfair, or that consumers are somehow misguided in taking their business elsewhere.  When they have money or political connections, these businesses may run to Congress and beg for special protections against competition, or even new subsidies, mandates, stimulus projects, and bailouts.

Where is the threat to capitalism and individual liberty coming from today?  Is it from some aggrieved proletariat, or is the threat from bailed out Wall Street firms, and AIG, and GM, and Chrysler, and ethanol manufacturers, and electric car makers, and windmill builders?


Really This Much Value Left?

Dish Network is going to buy Blockbuster out of bankruptcy for $320 million.  I am frankly floored there is that much value.  I have found that one can make a surprising amount of money riding an obsolete business down over the years if it is managed correctly -- but this is generally for product businesses.  Retail businesses are really hard to ride down because you need to be closing stores every year and that is hard to do cost-effectively given typical lease terms.  Never-the-less, I expected the winning bid to be from a liquidation company, someone like the folks who took wound down Circuit City.

But the purchase by Dish Network implies that the buyer wants to continue operating Blockbuster in some form, and the identity of the buyer implies some sort of on-demand or streaming service.  But what does Blockbuster offer?  Is the brand valuable in this context, or a liability?   Does it have customer loyalty with a segment (old people?) who have so far shied away from Netflix / Hulu?  Does Blockbuster have favorable royalty / licensing contracts with studios that are transferable to other video delivery models?

If I had to guess, I would bet on the latter.  There have been examples of whole businesses built from legacy contracts.   One of the best examples is a little noticed contract Carl Icahn had with TWA, which spawned a huge new travel agency and later really helped to build  Here was the story:

When TWA got a loan from Carl Icahn, an almost unnoticed part of the deal was that a certain travel agency owned by Icahn, small at the time, would be guaranteed TWA tickets at a healthy discount off the lowest published fares.  This agency, with this boondoggle, grew to enormous size as  TWA, beyond the reasons listed above, therefore had a second reason for not wanting to publish their lowest possible fare.  Normal limitations that most airlines could set on how many seats would be available at their lowest fare could not be enforced by TWA.  If they offered a new $100 fare, could blow out an unlimited number of tickets at $80 or less and TWA would have to accept it.  Therefore, by offering discounts unpublished via Priceline, TWA prevented the travel agency from getting inventory even cheaper.  And so, a huge portion of the early Priceline inventory was TWA.  (ironically, after the American Airlines acquisition of TWA killed the deal, the URL was bought by … Priceline.

I wonder if Blockbuster has something of similar value in their royalty / licensing agreements?