Tycoons fold on old-economy assets

Richard Desmond has sold the Daily Express to Trinity Mirror. Philip Green is looking at selling out of Top Shop, with China’s Shandong Ruyi rumoured to be the likely buyer. Rupert Murdoch is selling out of his controlling stake in Sky as part of the deal to sell Fox to Disney. That might just look like routine wheeler-dealing by some of the country’s best-know tycoons. But it is more than that.

In this column’s new-year predictions, I speculated that Green might want to cash in on Arcadia. The Burton-to-Top-Shop chain has a great brand, and a great presence in the market, and Green has built it into a powerful retailer. But the days when people spent the weekend on the high street buying themselves some new clothes are in the past.

The online retailers are just as good, and the prices are often better. Add in steep rises in the living wage and business rates, and it is a murderous mix. It might well be better to get out now while the chains are still worth something rather than wait until he has to sell them for £1 and then fix the pension fund, which is what happened at BHS.

A common theme emerges

Likewise, Richard Desmond had a great run at the Daily Star and Daily Express, which he bought for £125m in 2000. Even with circulation in relentless decline, he managed to keep slashing costs and make the titles decently profitable. Over the past few years there have been constant stories that he might sell the papers for several hundred million. None of them came to anything.

This year, however, he decided he’s had enough. Only 364,000 people are still buying the Express every day. Costs had already been squeezed to the bone. So Desmond sold out to Trinity Mirror for £127m, which is a lot less than he originally wanted, and hardly any more than he paid almost two decades ago.

There is a common theme here. Two of the countries best-know tycoons are not only selling a pair of companies they are no longer very interested in. They are also selling out of the old economy. Daily newspapers have been in terrible decline for years, sunk by the huge amount of free content available on the web. A few upmarket papers such as the Financial Times and The Times have managed to persuade people to pay for an online subscription.

But that was never going to work for a flimsy title like the Express. Desmond has stuck with it for years, but may now have decided the task of keeping it afloat was impossible. The same is increasingly true of the high street. It too is being decimated by internet competition.

Desmond and Green are not very likeable characters. But like most self-made entrepreneurs they have a great sense of timing – and of which way the wind is blowing. There may be others with the same predicament. Rupert Murdoch is getting out of Sky along with the rest of his Fox film and broadcasting interests in a $60bn deal with Disney. It might be that he wants to reshuffle his portfolio and concentrate on his newspaper and publishing businesses.

But Murdoch might also have looked at the potential threat Netflix and Amazon pose to Sky, for example, and decided this was the time to make an exit. After all, why pay £20 or £30 a month for a satellite channel when Netflix has some of the best content in the world for a quarter of the cost?

A warning for investors

There is a message here for ordinary investors. There are sectors of the economy that may have reached a tipping point, and are no longer sustainable. The internet has been disrupting those businesses for close on two decades, but we may now be at the stage where they are no longer viable. That is certainly true of many newspapers. It might increasingly be true of many retailers as well.

As customer numbers keeps falling, it is impossible to slash overheads fast enough to keep up, and eventually profits evaporate. If some of the smartest businessmen in the country are getting out of these sectors, so should ordinary investors – before it is too late.