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Arcadia’s Collapse Is a Tale of Modern Capitalism

As the high street was hollowed out by online monopolies, even its giants became reliant on cheap credit. Arcadia proves that in the era of Covid-19 this is no longer enough – and more collapses may follow.

It was obvious that the pandemic would fundamentally reshape the world’s corporate environment. Crises are moments in which the weak collapse, and their remains are spoils for the strong. The pandemic has been no exception.

The current crisis is having the greatest negative impact on small businesses: the banks administering the UK’s ‘bounceback loan’ scheme report that up to half of the businesses in receipt of the loans may default before the pandemic comes to an end. With lower margins, weaker relationships with their creditors and less lobbying firepower, it is highly likely that many more small businesses will go under in the coming months.

But larger enterprises are also at risk, as has become evident with the news that the Arcadia group and Debenhams will both be placed into administration. While news coverage will focus predictably on the real financial, strategic and moral failings of villains such as Philip Green – serial tax avoider and Tory donor – the decline of Arcadia is a symptom of a deeper and more interesting trend.

Ever since the 2008 Financial Crisis, cheap money has effectively nullified the forces of creative destruction that Schumpeter wrote about 80 years ago. Firms that should have failed long ago have been propped up by credit, while massive monopolies have been able to expand through close relationships with financial institutions. As the economic crisis continues, escalating insolvencies are likely to deepen market concentration and give rise to a more unequal, fragile and unsustainable form of capitalism.

Contrary to classical economists who insisted on conceptualising capitalism as a mythical system based on small producers competing with one another without ever amassing any real market power, Schumpeter argued that temporary monopolies were central to the development of capitalism. Temporarily higher monopoly profits, he argued, were the reward for entrepreneurial innovation.

These monopolies would be temporary, the logic went, because those firms that failed to innovate – and therefore lagged behind their competitors – would be culled by the forces of creative destruction. During crises, when investment demand and credit dried up, the least innovative firms would fail while the strongest would survive, perhaps becoming temporary monopolies themselves.

The interesting thing about the period since at least the Financial Crisis is that lending and investment have been more abundant than almost any other point in history. With cheap money readily available to prevent corporate collapse, monopoly has become a permanent feature rather than a temporary glitch of modern capitalism.

In part, this trend can be attributed to the growth of a ‘wall of money’ – made up of peoples’ pensions, the wealth of the very rich, corporate ‘savings’ and even the wealth of states – chasing out investment in a relatively depressed economic environment.

In the wake of 2008, this wall grew even larger as central banks around the world created trillions of dollars of new money and pumped it into the financial system, encouraging investors to rebalance their portfolios and ‘reach for yield’ – to seek out more profitable, which generally means riskier, investment opportunities. The dramatic cuts to central bank base rates have ensured that bank lending is now cheaper than ever.

At the same time, the performance of the ‘real’ economy has been poor. ‘De-globalisation’ has, according to some commentators, set in since 2008 – meaning that viable international investment opportunities have been harder to come by. And in the Global North, incomes and investment have both been depressed, meaning many businesses – particularly those such as Arcadia, whose revenues rely on the incomes of middle-class consumers – have struggled.

What has kept these firms alive has been the mountains of cheap debt they have been able to acquire from banks and financial markets seeking returns. Investors have pumped money into both existing monopolies – which are seen as a safe bet – and risky high yield corporate debt, which can generate high returns. Low interest rates have also allowed so-called ‘zombie companies’ to stagger on through the stagnation of the last decade by simply earning enough to service the interest on their outstanding debts.

Today, with demand and liquidity evaporating, these businesses are suddenly dropping like flies. Arcadia could probably not have been classified as a zombie corporation before the pandemic hit, but the company was clearly facing severe long-term problems like rising rents, competing with online retailers and big pensions deficits. Unfortunately for its workers, these were conditions that the relatively benign financial and economic environment of the last ten years allowed Philip Green to ignore.

Even while failing to secure the long-term future of the group, Green managed to amass a huge fortune of £1.2 billion, generated through both direct exploitation of workers and extractive financial and accounting techniques. Soon, many of the workers whose labour contributed to that fortune will find themselves out of a job – reliant on a welfare system that has been stripped to the bone by a Conservative government that Green vocally supported.

It is tempting to view what is going on with Arcadia as a one-off corporate scandal, complete with a cartoon villain. But in reality events like this will become far more common in the years to come. Ultimately, as high street firms fail, rents rise and habits change, monopolies may be the only firms able to survive. And while the British press finds it harder to caricature Jeff Bezos, he is far more dangerous to people and planet than even Philip Green.