once more on Amazon (AMZN)

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking/daydreaming/musing about AMZN lately.  I don’t know quite why, since I’m probably not going to buy the stock.  But my mind apparently doesn’t want to let go.

The latest thing to pop into my head is something I’d seen on the Value Line page for the stock but hadn’t paid much attention to.  It’s that:

–during the bounceback from the 2000 collapse of the Internet Bubble, AMZN shares tended to trade at about 30x cash flow.  In the recovery from the Great Recession, its cash flow multiple expanded to 50x.  Both are mind-boggling figures, to be sure-the second more so.

What could cause this gigantic multiple expansion, particularly during a period when investors were scared out of their wits and therefore more cautious than usual?

…possibly a better appreciation of the transformative nature of the internet and AMZN’s premier position as online merchant.  Cash generation from operations continues to grow at about 25% a year, virtually the same as before the GR, despite the company’s larger size.  That’s both a plus and a minus.  It’s an heroic achievement to maintain growth in the face of ballooning size.  But that’s usually something that keeps the multiple from contracting, not that causes it to expand by 60%.

…so I can’t help thinking that a lot of the favorable move is due to the Fed’s super-accommodative money policy.

Which gets me to my point.

Let’s assume that the economy’s release from intensive care and a return to normal money policy cause AMZN’s cash flow multiple to shrink to a “mere” 30x.  In simple terms, this means the stock should lose 40% of its value–maybe not all at once, but ultimately.  Continuing relentless growth in cash flow could cushion the fall somewhat.

Since the end of January, when the Fed made it clear it would continue baby steps toward normal despite weakening economic indicators, AMZN shares have pretty much made the entire reverse movement already–they’ve lost 25% of their value in a flat market.  They haven’t been alone, either.  Every other story stock has fallen this much–or more.

This thought makes me want to speed up my efforts to dig through the rubble.

 

rent vs. buy: digital goods

My daughter, who’s very interested in digital goods, suggested that I write about them.

Why?

They’re new, and they’re different.  Also, Laura supplied a lot of the information in this post.

Part of the difference between the digital goods we have now and their physical counterparts is in the nature of the beast(s).  Part, however, comes the desire of sellers–particularly Apple–to recreate the AOL-style “walled garden” that tethers the buyer to a given seller’s product line and secures fat profits for the retailer.

Some examples:

Generally speaking, for digital goods like e-books, or songs or movies, you don’t really own the digital copy you download.  You only have a license to use it.  Kindle owners found this out early on.  Amazon was inadvertently distributing 1984 without having bought the digital rights.  When the company found out–presumably when the rights holder called asking for money–Amazon simply went “Poof!” and made the book disappear from all the Kindles it had appeared on.  Apparently very few of the shocked Orwell fans had read the fine print in the Kindle service agreement.  It is kind of funny, though.

Usually, you can’t give your download to someone else.  You may be able to lend it for a short period of time, but maybe not.

The digital good may appear on all of your devices.   …or it may appear just on all your Android devices but not Apple, or vice versa.

 

The most peculiar aspect of digital goods, to my mind, is what happens with e-books in (if that’s the right word) libraries.  Many authors or imprints won’t sell e-books to libraries, so the selection is limited.  At least some sellers place counters in the downloads, so that the copy disappears after a certain number of borrowings.  It isn’t a quality control issue–a worry that the digital copy has somehow degraded;  it’s to mimic what happens to physical books, which eventually fall apart after repeated use.   In other words, it’s to force the library to pay again after a certain number of uses.

 

investment significance?

Maybe there’s none.

On the other hand, I think we’ve got to distinguish carefully between essential characteristics of digital goods and those that are a function of sellers’ desire to create closed “ecosystems.”  After all, the AOL walled garden lost any allure it had (I never got it) when people discovered there was a big wide world outside the AOL server farms that AOL got in the way of people experiencing.

I suspect the same will eventually happen with Apple–personally, I think this might be happening already.  As/when this occurs, I’d expect the price of digital goods in general to fall (maybe a lot).  A sharp separation will probably also emerge between high-quality content, whose unit sales will increase (again, maybe by a lot), and me-too content, which will disappear.

 

 

 

 

 

the SEC investigates store chains’ internet sales claims

the SEC questions internet sales hype

According to the Wall Street Journalthe SEC recently sent inquiry letters to a bunch of retailers asking them to quantify claims managements were making in quarterly earnings conference calls about internet sales and internet sales growth.  Fifth & Pacific (Kate Spade, Juicy Couture…), for example, told investors it had a “ravenously growing” web business.  Others tossed around numbers like up 30%.

On the other hand, while online sales in the US may be growing faster than revenues from bricks-and-mortar operations, they’re still only in posting increases in (low) double digits, and make up less than 6% of total retail.  So the SEC was concerned that the company talk might be more hype than reality.  Why no disclosure of internet sales as a percentage of total sales?

The SEC got two types of reply:

equivocation.  Some retailers said they don’t disclose the size of online sales because they’re “omnichannel” firms.  An individual customer may sometimes visit a store, sometimes order from a desktop at work, sometimes buy from a smartphone on the train going home in the evening.  It’s the total customer relationship that counts, they said, not the way someone may buy any particular item.  Translation:  online sales are almost non-existent, but we know shareholders will react badly if we say so.

confession, sort of.  Others said that online sales were “immaterial,” meaning no more than a couple of percentage points of total sales.

there’s information here

Why not just say so?

…because it sounds bad.

Why bring up internet sales in the first place?

…because we have no other good things to say.

look at the income statement

I could have told you that, just from taking a quick look at company income statements.

Here’s my reasoning:

–if a company’s internet sales are growing at, say, 20% and comprise 10% of total sales, then they’ll contribute 2% to overall sales growth.  Because online sales are free of many of the costs of bricks-and-mortar stores, like salespeoples’ salaries and rent, they should carry (much) higher margins than sales in physical stores.  Therefore, if internet sales are big, we should see accelerating sales growth and rising margins.

Take Target (TGT) as an example.  Aggregate sales are growing at about a 3% annual rate with no signs of acceleration.  Operating margins are flat to down.  If online sales contributed 2/3 of total growth, TGT would have to disclose that  …and margins would be heading up noticeably. Therefore, internet sales can’t be anything close to 10%–or even 5%–of TGT’s business.

By the way,  TGT’s response to the SEC was that its internet sales are immaterial.

why the SEC investigation?

Every company is going to try to spin the facts of its performance in a favorable way.  Just take a look at the 10-K, where management can go to jail if disclosure is incomplete or counterfactual.  It’s chock full of dire warnings of what might go wrong.  It’s also in dense print with no pictures.  Compare that with the annual report, where every page is glossy, every face is smiling and the skies are always blue.

Also, retailers are marketers, after all, so we should expect an unusually rosy portrayal of results and prospects from them.

Still, there are limits.  Even if the border line is a bit fuzzy, there comes a point where  positive spin becomes deception, where touting the fantastic prospects of a currently minuscule business becomes fraud–especially if it’s in an area like online where Wall Street is intensely interested.

I interpret the SEC letters a warnings to the companies involved that they have been treading dangerously close to that line, and may even have stepped over it.  Expect a much more 10-K-ish assessment from now on.

 

why did Amazon (AMZN) just issue $3 billion in bonds?

I’ve known about AMZN since its inception.  I’ve never owned the stock, however–which has, since 2006, been an embarrassing oversight on my part.  But as one of my former bosses used to say, in her characteristically non-PC way, “You can’t kiss all the pretty girls.”

AMZN is clearly a pivotal company in the transformation of US–and ultimately global–retailing.  But at its typical 100 times earnings or so, I’ve always found the valuation a bit too steep.  I am an Amazon customer, though, and an Amazon Prime subscriber.  I also use a Kindle (and an iPad) to read.

Anyway, several things about this week’s issue of $3 billion in AMZN bonds caught my eye:
–the interest rate, which is at only about a 60 basis point premium to Treasuries

–the stated purpose of the issue, namely the boilerplate “general corporate purposes”

–the lack of relevant commentary, although I really shouldn’t be surprised.  I’ve read some suggestion that part of the net proceeds will go to pay for the company’s new $1.16 billion HQ in Seattle.  AMZN does mention in a supplement to the original prospectus that it has agreed to buy the complex.  But it would be weird for the company to disclose that and not mention the buildings as a use of proceeds if that were so.  My assumption is that the new HQ will be financed separately with non-recourse debt.

looking at AMZN financials

–capital spending is up very sharply recently, from around $200 million a year in 2007 to $1.8 billion in 2011 and the current $23 billion annual rate (I’m taking all figures in this post from the Value Line Investment Survey, the industry bible for such data). That’s slightly more than the cash generated by operations, not counting working capital changes (see the second item below this one).

–operating margins are down.  They were more than 6% of sales a half-decade ago.  They’re under 4% currently.  I interpret this is the effect of selling e-books and kindles for little or no profit, or at a loss.

I don’t think this is necessarily bad.  I point it out only as further evidence of the dedication to expanding its digital footprint–even at the expense of profits–that has marked the company for the past few years.

–$5.2 billion in cash?…yes, and no.  The September balance sheet for AMZN shows that figure.  But look at Payables (the amount AMZN owes suppliers) and Receivables (the amount customers owe AMZN).  They’re $8.4 billion and $2.4 billion, respectively.  The difference is $6.0 billion.  In other words, all the cash on the balance sheet (plus another $800 million) is explained by the fact that customers pay AMZN very quickly and suppliers don’t get their cash very fast.

There’s nothing wrong with running a negative working capital business.  In fact, it’s great.  But the cash it generates is only there as long as sales are stable or rising.  If they start to shrink, so too does the cash level.  So spending this money on capital projects, where AMZN can’t get to it quickly, has some risk attached to it.

why the offering?

I think it signals AMZN’s belief that the current environment of intense competition for digital dollars, of low margins and of capital spending larger than cash flow isn’t going to change any time soon.

I wonder whether Wall Street realizes this.  I also wonder how many remember the long struggle toward profitability AMZN had up until 2002.  The average analyst earnings estimate for AMZN in 2013 is $1.80 per share, with one analyst projecting close to $4.  I haven’t done any numbers, but, to me, the just-completely bond sale implies even the $1.80 is probably much too aggressive.