Jeff Bezos poses on a lorry after handing over a two billion dollar cheque to Indian Vice President and Country Manager of, Amit Agarwal, in Bangalore. Photo: Manjunath Kiran/AFP/Getty
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The party is over for Amazon

The retail giant was unstoppable – until this year. What happened?

At Business Insider’s annual Ignition conference Tuesday, CEO Jeff Bezos explained why Amazon’s stock price keeps rising despite almost zero profits: the company continues to invest in new businesses, and Amazon’s investors are OK with that. “If you’re going to take bold bets, they’re going to be experiments,” he said. “And if they’re experiments, you don't know ahead of time if they're going to work. Experiments are by their very nature prone to failure. But a few big successes compensate for dozens and dozens of things that didn’t work.”

But Amazon hit a road bump in 2014: its stock is down 18 per cent, and investors are no longer optimistic about the company’s outlook. This year has exposed the limitations of Bezos’s business strategy.

For most of Amazon’s existence, the company has been barely profitable. From 2007 through 2013, its revenues quintupled from $14.8bn to $74.45bn, but profits dropped from $436m to $273m. Note: that's billions in revenue, and just hundreds of millions in profits. Meanwhile, Amazon’s stock has consistently risen because investors didn't care about the dwindling profit margins. Bezos’s strategy worked: Amazon is now the US leader in online retail. It’s so big that the editor of the New Republic, Franklin Foer, wrote a cover story declaring the company a monopoly.

Then 2014 hit, and investors turned on the company. When Amazon announced on Monday that it would issue new unsecured debt, Moody’s downgraded the company’s outlook to negative. There are two reasons for this change in investor sentiment.

1. Revenue growth has slowed from 40 per cent in 2010 and 2011, to 27 per cent in 2012, to 22 per cent in 2013. This year it is projected to be between 16 and 20 per cent.

2. Amazon’s newest investments aren’t paying off. The most notable failure has been the Fire phone, which has received terrible reviews. In October, the firm took a $170m write-down loss as its inventory piled up and the company cut the cost of the phone from $200 to 99 cents. The Fire’s failure, at least so far, does not necessarily reveal a flaw in Bezos’s strategy. After all, if you make big bets, you’re going to have some major failures as well. “What really matters is that companies that don’t continue to experiment – companies that don’t embrace failurethey eventually get in a desperate position, where the only thing they can do is make a ‘Hail Mary’ bet at the very end,” Bezos said on Tuesday. Of course, not all of Amazon’s recent investments have failed. Fire TV, for instance, has been a success. But investors get nervous when those bets fail to pay off at the same time the core business’ growth slows. And the Fire phone was a big bet that has not worked.

Matt Yglesias, then writing for Slate, predicted this in January. “Amazon gets away with relentlessly investing in the future only because, for now, investors have faith in Bezos and his strategy,” he wrote. “But that faith has been tested in the past, and it’s likely that some future convulsion in markets will cause it to wane again.” Yglesias didn’t see any reason for this strategy to fail soon, much less this year. “For the foreseeable future, the party can – and willgo on, crushing everything in its path and generating mighty gains for consumers.”

On that point, Yglesias was wrong: investors have turned the lights on. The party is over. And yet, if his comments on Tuesday are any indication, Bezos isn’t planning to change his strategy anytime soon. That’s good news for Amazon’s penny-pinching customers, but could mean a rocky 2015 for the retail giant.

This article first appeared on

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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.