Amazon’s no-show profits

Amazon’s 2Q14 results

When Amazon (AMZN) reported 2Q14 results last Thursday, not only did the company post a bigger operating loss than anticipated but it said that the 3Q14 red ink would dwarf the 2Q14 actuals.

The news came as a surprise  …and not one that Wall Street took favorably.  The stock dropped 11% in Friday trading.

At the same time, the news media were filled with red-faced portfolio managers and analysts complaining that Jeff Bezos should be more sensitive to their need for more robust profits, which–allegedly–would make the stock go up.

To me, this is a case of being careful what you wish for.

Let’s do some back of the envelope calculations to see why…

is AMZN’s valuation reasonable?

The analyst consensus is that AMZN will earn around $2 a share in 2015.  That’s a forward PE of 160x.  How could anyone pay that price to own a share of any company?  For someone who holds AMZN, he must be thinking something like this:

–the company consists of a US business that makes a considerable profit and a foreign one that is flirting with breakeven.  If we assume that foreign operations can equal the US in size and profits at some point, then that $2 a share will sooner or later become $4 a share at some point.  On this basis, the multiple is “only” 80x.

–the company spends a lot of money on computer software.  In a very real sense, this is capital spending.  That is to say, as is the case with any capital asset, the expenditure on software should arguably be registered on the balance sheet and written off bit by bit against revenue over the lifetime of the programs.  Because of past accounting abuses, however, programming costs are recognized as expenses immediately, even though the programs may last a long time.  This depresses current income.

AMZN also writes off startup expenses for new ventures right away. This is a conservative approach, but it also depresses current income.

To pluck a figure out of the air, if AMZN were less conservative and if it could treat software costs as capital items, $4 would be $8–and the future PE multiple is a “mere” 40x.  That’s too rich for my blood, but it’s not absolutely crazy, provided AMZN continues to grow.

what will likely happen if/when AMZN’s profits start to surge

What would it mean if AMZN began to show large amounts of current income?

The most likely scenario–and the one pms and analysts are calling for–would be that the company is no longer incurring software creation expense and  hefty startup costs for new ventures.

…in other words, it would imply that AMZN had run out of growth opportunities!  Surging profits imply AMZN is going ex-growth.

In my experience, there are few things worse, in stock market terms, than holding a growth stock that has suddenly gone ex growth.

In my judgment, a +30% increase in earnings by AMZN would be accompanied by a gigantic price earnings multiple contraction.  A halving of the PE would be my best guess.  If that’s anywhere near correct, the end result would be a loss of a third of AMZN’s market value.

As I said above, be careful what you wish for.  It also strikes me that the Wall Street complainers have no clue about the kind of stock they’re dealing with.



2 responses

  1. I love AMZN as a customer and am leery of owning companies in its path (e.g., FTD) , but it is way too richly valued for me to be interested as an investor. Your analysis is a credible explanation of its current valuation and the eventual end-game.

  2. I feel the same way.

    Although I didn’t mention it in my post, there was what I think of as a very similar phenomenon with Japanese security monitoring firms in the late 1980s – early 1990s. Japanese financial accounting is pretty much identical with its tax accounting. So the monitoring companies expensed the cost of acquiring and installing the monitoring devices as incurred (the security firms continued to own the devices so that customers couldn’t easily switch). The faster they grew, the worse their results looked. But they had strong performance and traded at very high PEs. The stocks cratered almost as soon as the companies started to show sharp earnings growth–because investors realized this signaled market saturation.

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