What is the truth about BHS?

I have never met Sir Philip Green, and am not sure that I want to. I doubt that I have been into a BHS store more than twice in my life (once, I think, to buy a lampshade). So my qualifications for commenting on the High Street’s latest collapsing retail chain are minimal. Nevertheless I take my hat off to accountant Paul Scott for daring to challenge the prevailing media narrative on the BHS story in his regular column for the Stockopedia website (a service I subscribe to). Having taken the trouble to go back and read the BHS accounts all the way back to 1999, his conclusions are rather different to those paraded across much of the media, although to its credit the BBC has picked up his comments. He notes, among other things, that BHS has not paid any dividends to the Green family since 2004; that the pension fund only began to get into trouble after the financial crisis (which can be attributed in part to QE and low interest rate policy, over which the company’s owner had no control); and that selling the business for £1 still cost him money, as he had to write off £200m + of loans from other parts of his business empire that had kept BHS going as it clocked up year after year of losses. So the idea that the Greens stripped BHS of all its cash by paying themselves fat dividends, ensuring its bankruptcy, is simply not correct (although what is true that they have paid themselves a lot of dividends from Top Shop and other much more profitable parts of their retail empire). The reality is that BHS, like many other famous retail businesses before it, has run out of road and sadly probably deserves to die, leaving other retailers to take up the slack. At the same time, while selling BHS to a seemingly hopeless entrepreneur for £1 must have seemed a smart move on paper, the political and media fallout has done Sir Philip no favours. The strategy looks – and has turned out to be – a wheeze too far. But, having kept BHS going at a loss for years, when others might have dumped it earlier, it seems highly doubtful whether media outrage can force him to plug the entire pension deficit on his own. The Greens’ real crimes of course are to have made a lot of money and to live in Monaco, thereby avoiding a lot of tax, the second of which is a far more worthy objection than the first.