July 28, 2014

Amazon’s shares drop again


This man has some explaining to do. Image via Wikipedia.

Bezos *looks* like he’s explaining things, but… Image via Wikipedia.

Live-blogging Amazon’s quarterly report announcements has got to be one of the more frustrating experiences in the range of human experience. The story is so often the same: revenue’s up, losses exceed it, a few details are offered about new projects, optimism is expressed, and then everyone is encouraged to (virtually) take a muffin and beat it. Pesky questions about why the company still doesn’t turn a profit seem as gauche as taking two—heck, while you’re at it, four—muffins.

But the narrative got an injection of some degree of drama last week when Amazon announced its second quarter results, which Rex Crum live-blogged (along with the follow-up conference call with Amazon CFO Tom Szkutak) for the Wall Street Journal’s MarketWatch. Because the news wasn’t pretty: while revenue is around $20 billion, losses were at $126 million, up from $7 million in the same period last year. This is a greater loss per share than analysts had predicted, and it’s going to keep ballooning — the next quarter’s losses are expected to be between $410 and $810 million.

In response, share prices dropped 10%, which is the third quarter in a row that they’ve done this—in January, they were down around 11% and in April 10%. Which suggests, possibly, that this isn’t just about quarter-by-quarter variations, but a more fundamental mistrust of the retailer’s long-term strategy. Reporting for the New York Times on it, David Streitfeld quotes analyst Colin Gillis:

“Skepticism is increasing,” said Colin Gillis of BGC Partners. “It’s hard to have $20 billion in revenue and not make any money. It’s a real feat.”

The reaction from Amazon, however, was typically muted. In the conference call, Szkutak barely commented on on the results, and also said very little about the products and services on which Amazon has been incurring those heavy losses. Nothing on the Fire phone, which Greenpeace recently criticized as far “dirtier” – in terms of how the data centers that support its cloud storage are powered— than the iPhone. Just a few words about the original content the company’s been developing for Amazon Instant Video—five new pilots have been greenlit, joining “Alpha House,” back for a second season (how could you, Garry Trudeau, how could you??), and the six shows Amazon committed to making series out of after their first round of pilots. And just a smidgin more about Amazon Prime, where subscriptions have apparently risen, despite this spring’s fee increase from $79 to $99, though per usual no numbers were given.

Amazon Prime is actually where a great deal of the company’s money has been going, as Hayley Tsukayama wrote in the Washington Post last Thursday:

The company’s two biggest expenses last quarter were shipping and the cost of acquiring content such as the TV shows that it streams to Prime members.

The amount Amazon spent fulfilling retail orders rose 27 percent over the last year to $2.3 billion in the most recent quarter. It spent another $2.2 billion on “technology and content” this past quarter, up from $1.59 billion in the same period last year. The company buys the rights to a massive amount of TV shows and movies in order to drive consumers to its Prime service and to pick up Amazon devices such as its Kindle tablets and new Fire phone.

It’s putting a lot of eggs in the Prime basket, in other words, and this may be working: according to Szkutak and other sources, Prime members buy significantly more than non-Prime members. But at what cost? And how long will investors be willing to bear with the company while it sinks money into areas where it isn’t competitive? On Friday, Kevin Roose posted a useful rundown in New York of all the potential reasons for the drop in share prices, in which he points out that, among other issues, cloud computing and same-day delivery are increasingly crowded domains, the Fire seems like an expensive dud, and making TV shows is tough.

And still Amazon stonewalls: the one statement that Szkutak made about Amazon’s finances in the course of the call was that “our results are inherently unpredictable.” Which may be true. But probably it isn’t what investors want to hear at this point, twenty years in.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.