Sunday, April 14, 2013

Holden's tragedy. Elvis has left the room

What’s killing Holden is what killed the Top 40.

As a child growing up in the 1970s I scarcely missed an edition of American Top 40. It mattered to me because it was the Top 40. Record buyers and radio stations shared common music tastes.

But towards the end of the 1970s it began to splinter.

Some US stations didn’t play disco. They edited out the disco records before putting the program to air. Others played only country music, others only ‘black’, and others only white, including the new video hits channel MTV which famously didn’t play a black video until Michael Jackson broke through with one so good it could not be ignored.

Three decades on it is happening to news. Readers are increasingly choosing their own sorts of news, via a twitter stream or (in some cases) a newspaper that tells them the sort of things they want to hear.

Michael Jackson was a throwback. The era of universally shared musical taste probably ended earlier with Elvis. Bruce Springsteen thinks so. In a speech at a 2012 music festival he quoted a 1977 Elvis obituary:

I can guarantee you one thing,” said music critic Lester Bangs. “We will never again agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis.”.

“So I won't bother saying goodbye to his corpse. I will say good-bye to you.”

There’s no longer a generally-agreed Top 40. There’s the adult contemporary chart, the soul chart, and so on. There’s more music, but different types of it are created for different types of people.

Which brings us to Holden.

When Elvis died Holden had close to 40 per cent of Australia’s market. We really did love “Football, Meat Pies, Kangaroos and Holden cars”. Four out of every five cars sold in Australia were made in Australia. And they looked pretty much identical.
Partly it is because we had little choice. The tariff (tax) added to the price of each imported car was 57.5 per cent.

And partly it’s because most of us probably did want the same thing - a big car. Holden gave birth to the Commodore as Elvis died. It is still with us, and it is still big. It’s competitor the Ford Falcon is big.

But our tastes have fractured. More of us have wanted small cars, more green cars, and more and more four wheel drives (now known as SUVs). But with only rare exceptions the Australian manufacturers have acted as if we didn’t. Like the makers of American Top 40 continuing to pretend there were still universal musical tastes through the 1980s each of Australia’s big four kept acting as if the key to survival was making a better version of the same big thing.

Economic theory shows us that’s what protected firms do.

Ever wondered why Qantas and Virgin flights leave at roughly the same times? It’d be more useful if they left at different times, but without outside competition they won’t.

A century ago a United States economist named Harold Hotelling explained why using Hotelling’s Law.

Imagine a kilometre long beach served by just two ice cream carts. Each sunbather wants a cart nearby. The best solution would be to put the carts where no sunbaker has to walk more than 250 meters, by placing one cart one quarter the way along and the other three quarters along.

But if that happened each cart would be tempted to move closer to the middle to grab some of the other’s business. Eventually the two would be next to each other.

Our big car makers kept specialising in big cars because they believed they could focus inwards, each trying to grab the other’s market share.

They might have gotten away with it (amid grumbles from consumers) except that the wall protecting them crumbled. On January 1 2010 last bricks were kicked away. The 10 per cent tariff was cut to 5 per cent. Offsets mean the effective rate is 3.5 per cent.

At the same time the dollar did what it had never done in the era of floating exchange rates. It climbed above $US1 and stayed there. In the quarter of a century to January 2010 the Aussie had averaged 72 US cents. It’s now 105 US cents. That makes foreign cars 45 per cent cheaper to import, and there’s no tariff wall to keep them out.

Free to buy what we want to we are shelling out for different cars like never before. Every third new car sold is an SUV. Every fifth car sold is small. Only every tenth new car sold in made in Australia. Every 25th new car sold is an Australian-made Holden.

Holden let go of 500 workers this week. It’s one size fits all business model has gone and it is not coming back.

In today's Sun Herald

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