Great first quarter for Amazon (AMZN.) On Thursday, April 25, Amazon reported earnings of $7.09 a share, $2.43 a share better than Wall Street expected. The company’s cloud unit, AWS, reported a 42% increase in revenue, 59% jump in operating income and a surge in operating margin to 28.9%, up 320 basis points. The “other” segment, which is mostly advertising saw revenue gain 34% to $2.72 billion. EMarketer estimates that Amazon’s digital advertising business is now the third largest in the United States trailing only Alphabet’s Google and Facebook.
But looking out further there were signs that the company might be moving back toward a period of of heavy investments that will cut into income. Amazon’s history shows that the company cycles through periods of heavy investment in order to create future revenue growth (but with low profits) to periods of soaring profits as investments taper off (which is where the company is now) and then back again.What were the signs that Amazon might be cycling back into higher investment?
First, Amazon’s announcement that it would speed up free shipping for its Prime members from two-days to one-day this year. The extra speed, the company said, will add $800 million in costs in the second quarter. The competitive punch of this move was immediately apparent in a slump in shares of other retailers. Did companies such as Wal-Mart (WMT) or Target (TGT) think they might have caught up with Amazon on free shipping? Well, they need to think again. In after-hours trading on Thursday, shares of Wall-Mart fell .47% and shares of Target dipped 0.61%. At Amazon shipping costs in the first quarter were up only 21% to $7.3 billion. That’s a huge top line number but the 21% growth in costs is actually a slower pace than in recent quarters. That comparative restraint could be about to end.
Second, for the quarter revenue grew only 17% year over year. North American sales climbed 17%. International Sales rose by 16%. That met estimates from Wall Street analysts but revenue growth does continue to slide lower. That suggests, certainly, that Amazon is looking at another round of current investments that will drive future growth. This is the first time that quarterly sales growth has dipped below 20% since 2015.
And third, because the company said so. For the second quarter the company projected that revenue would grow by 13% to 20% year over year from the second quarter of 2018. Operating income in the quarter would be $2.6 billion to $3.6 billion. That’s significantly below the pre-earnings report Wall Street consensus of $4.2 billion. And the lower end of that range is below the $3 billion in operating income for the second quarter of 2018.
Wall Street–and investors and traders–isn’t overly concerned by signs of a slowdown or the lowered guidance. The consensus take seems to be 1) that Amazon can turn on the income spigot at will and this increase in costs and spending isn’t going to last very long, and/or 2) that Amazon’s guidance is just one of those conservative earnings game things and the second quarter will wind up beating guidance. That was, in fact, the take today from Piper Jaffray when the company raised its target price to $2225. (Amazon’s shares closed at $1950.63 today, up 2.54%.)
I don’t see any signs that the market sentiment on Amazon has changed after this earnings report. It remains the must own stock that is studded through so many portfolios and ETFs and indexes.On the numbers I’d have to say I disagree with the extremes of this optimism. I do think Amazon is entering upon the increased costs and spending part of its historical revenue/income cycle. The decision to buy Whole Foods Market is an indication that the company is thinking about spending big bucks in order to fuel the next stage in its growth. In some part of its think Wall Street recognizes this–that’s why the news that Amazon and Kohl’s (KSS) would extend their current marketing relationship turned so quickly into speculation that Amazon would buy the $11.8 billion market cap retailer. (Kohl’s will accept returns from Amazon at its stores, expanding a program that had been limited to California, and sell Amazon products in its stores.)
So what do you want to do?
If you own Amazon, I’m not advising your to sell as long as the sentiment remains optimistic. And as long as the market trend as a whole remains to the upside. Amazon is the market in many ways and I don’t think it will sell off until the market does. But both the market and Amazon are at or near historic highs.
I would note that the new Piper Jaffray target price of $2225 is only 14% above today’s close. If you don’t own Amazon now I don’t see 14% as a reason to jump into a position now. Wait. If Amazon is really going into the higher spending/lower income part of its cycle, another quarter or two might start to convince the market as a whole. And then the stock might be available at something less than the current 96.85 price to earnings ratio on trailing 12-month earning per share.
Amazon is a member of my long-term 50 Stocks Portfolio. I have a 214% gain on this position since I initiated it on April 19, 2016. My purchase price, I’d note, was $620.50 a share. I don’t know if a future 214% return is in the cards for Amazon. But I’m pretty sure it won’t begin, if it is begin, with a purchase price of $1950 a share.