Jeff Bezos poses on a lorry after handing over a two billion dollar cheque to Indian Vice President and Country Manager of Amazon.in, 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 newrepublic.com

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Banishing safe seats, and other proposals to bridge the democratic divide

How to improve key areas of democracy.

Labour’s election train is finally pulling into the station, with its new leader announced in just over a fortnight. However, a summer absorbed in the party’s internal democracy has obscured a deeper truth confronting the country: the general election confirmed that unequal political participation rates in the UK – by age, class, ethnicity and region– have become increasingly hardwired into how our democracy operates.

IPPR’s new report underscores the scale of the democratic divide.  For example, less than half of 18-24 year olds voted, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of "AB" individuals cast a ballot, against just over half of "DE" registered voters. Critically, this marks a sharp rise in turnout inequality over time. In 1987, for example, turnout rates by class were almost identical but have steadily diverged since.

Similarly, age-based differences have got significantly worse over time. In 1964 turnout for 18-24 year olds was 76.4 per cent, almost matching the 76.7 per cent turnout rate of those aged 65 or over. By 2005 only 38.2 per cent of 18-24 year olds voted against 74.3 per cent of 65+ year olds, with only a very slight improvement this year.

Underlying growing disparities of electoral voice are striking divergences in perceptions of the fairness and effectiveness of our democracy. For example, IPPR/YouGov polling suggests a striking 63 per cent of "DE" individuals think that our democratic system serves their interests badly, while "AB" voters are evenly split.

Given these signs of democratic distress, there remains a strong case for establishing a wide-ranging constitutional convention to reset how our democracy operates. Yet Westminster shows no appetite for such constitutional reformation, and there would only be so much a civil society-led convention could achieve in terms of practical change.

In our report we therefore propose a series of achievable reforms that could update the civic, institutional and technological architecture of our democracy in the here and now, with the explicit goal of ensuring that all voices are better heard in the political process.

On electoral reform, while we reiterate our support for proportional representation for national elections, we know this simply isn’t going to happen this Parliament. We had a referendum on change in 2011 and it was heavily lost. The energies of electoral reformers should therefore focus on extending PR in local government, where it is more obviously in the self-interest of the major parties, as a means of extending their geographical reach.

In addition, the reduction in the number of MPs provides an opportunity to chip away at the number of safe seats. More than half of seats are "safe", a number that has grown over time, even allowing for the electoral earthquake in Scotland. Safe seats typically have lower levels of participation, lower turnout rates, and less electorally powerful voters. While safe seats will always be with us in a first-past-the-post system, too many can be damaging to democracy.

Given this, we have recommended that the various Boundary Commissions of the UK be given a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of seats – ie. to tilt against the creation of safe seats – when boundaries are redrawn. The priority would be to meet their current duties of ensuring the geographic coherence of a seat and roughly equal electorates.

However, where these duties can be met we suggest that the Commissions should consider revising boundaries to reduce the number of safe seats, as a step to increasing participation and the voting power of the average elector. Of course, this will clearly not "abolish" all safe seats – nor should it  but it could help re-empower millions of voters currently with little meaningful say over the outcome of elections and force political parties to up their game in safe seats.

At the same time, the transition to the individual electoral registration process risks excluding millions from the franchise, people who are disproportionately younger, poorer or from an ethnic minority. For example, there are clear inequalities by age and ethnicity in terms of who is registered to vote: in the 2010 general election, for which figures are most accurate, 90 per cent of people aged 55-64 were registered, compared to 55 per cent of those aged 18-24, while nearly 20 per cent of BME individuals were not registered to vote, compared to only 7 per cent of the "white British" population.

There are simple steps the government could take to ensure all who are eligible are able to vote: extending the registration deadline to December 2016, and making support available to local authorities to assist registration efforts, weighted towards authorities with higher levels of under-registration, could help reduce inequalities.  In the longer term, electoral registration officers should be given new duties, and the Electoral Commission more powers, to drive up registration rates, with a particular focus on presently under-registered demographics. 

Finally, we recommend introducing a Democracy Commission. At present, the Electoral Commission effectively regulates elections and party funding. Democracy, however, is far richer and broader than electoral processes. It is about formal representation, but also about participation and deliberation, in what Marc Stears has called "everyday democracy".

A statutorily independent Democracy Commission could give institutional ballast to the latter and help reinvigorate democratic life by providing research, resources and capacity-building to facilitate local, civil society-led initiatives that aim to increase broad-based levels of powerful democratic participation or deliberation in collective decision-making processes.

For example, a Democracy Commission could work with the GLA to introduce participatory budgeting in London, assist the Greater Manchester Combined Authority in instituting a public deliberative body with real teeth over how to integrate health and social care in the area, help the Scottish government conduct citizens’ juries on the future constitutional shape of the country, or support civil-society experiments to bring people closer to collective political decision-making processes in their locality.

We are living in a paradoxical political era, where growing political inequality is accompanied by ongoing social and technological change that has the capacity to collapse unnecessary political and economic hierarchies and build a more inclusive, participatory and responsive democracy. However, there is no guarantee that the age of the network will necessarily lead to democratic revival. The institutions and technologies of our political system, products of the 19th century, are struggling in the fluidity and fracture of the 21st century, inhibiting democratic renewal.

With our economy post-industrial, our ways of communicating increasingly digital and more networked, our identities and relationships ever more variegated and complex, it is therefore critical public policy seeks to update the democratic infrastructure of the UK, and, in so doing, help reverse entrenched political inequality.

Such an agenda is vital. If we simply accept the current institutional arrangements of our political system as the limits of our ambition, we must also content ourselves to live in a divided – and therefore inherently partial – democracy. Yet our democracy is not immutable but malleable, and capable of being reformed for the better; reform today can make democratic life more equal. After all, the story of British democracy’s evolution is one of yesterday’s impossible becoming today’s ordinary.

Mathew Lawrence is a research fellow at IPPR and the co-author of "The Democracy Commission: Reforming democracy to combat political inequality". He tweets at @dantonshead.