Tale of two companies: Apple's profit and Amazon's loss

Apple made $8bn profit last quarter, while Amazon lost $28m. Yet the two companies are treated as equally successful. Why?

Two giants of the technology world posted their quarterly results yesterday evening, with the differences highlighting the gulf between them – both in finances, and perceptions.

Apple's earnings report for the fourth quarter 2012 showed an $8.2bn profit on $36bn in revenue. This is a new Q4 record for the company, topping this quarter last year when it earned $6.62bn profit on $28.27bn revenue. The gains were largely due to an increase in stock shipped: iPad sales went from 11m to 14m, and iPhone sales from 17m to 26.9m, both year-on-year (the figures don't include the iPhone 5 to any significant degree, which was only on sale for the last nine days of the quarter). The rest of Apple's business held largely flat, with the exception of the iPod line which continued losing share to smartphones. The average gross margin, in particular, was essentially unchanged at 40 per cent.

At the other end of the West Coast, in Seattle, Amazon announced its results. Net sales were up 27 per cent year-on-year, at $13.81bn – but operating income fell to a loss of $28m, down from the $79m profit it made last year. That loss wasn't unexpected – the company had been warning that it expected a loss of between $50m and $350m – but it reaffirms the image of Amazon as a company unconcerned with profit.

Much of the money has been spent on heavy investment, and the Verge writes that Amazon Web Services and Kiva Systems have been particular beneficiaries of the spending. The former is the spin-off from the company's core business, and provides web services – hence the name – to a number of other companies, ranging from garage start-ups to behemoths like Reddit. That business suffered a blow earlier this week when it experienced a sustained outage, which underscores the need for further investment.

Kiva Systems is Amazon's recently-acquired robotic warehouse-management system. Depending on how cool you find robots in warehouses, it does pretty cool stuff for Amazon's productivity, but has yet to be put into widespread usage.

Despite the fact that these results are as different as night and day, reaction to both was muted. Apple failed to meet the guesses made by Wall Street, which had forecast even higher sales particularly of iPads. The Q3 results were artificially depressed by the lack of availability of the then-new first generation retina iPad, and some were expecting a bigger bounce back from that than there actually was.

There was also disappointment in financial sectors about Amazon's performance. This is the second quarter running in which the company has posted a loss, despite sales in the tens of billions, and many investors are starting to wonder if the company really is preparing for profit, or if this is the way Amazon will always be run.

I wrote last week about the ways Amazon could be planning to get into profit, and they all boil down to dominating a market. Either the company's expansion into same-day delivery allows it to conclusively deal the killing blow to traditional retail; or it's domination of book selling allows it to bully publishers into handing over ever greater shares of the margin; or its new Kindles allow it to move low-margin sales of physical media over to high-margin sales of digital media.

At the time, I worried about the pitfalls that lay in the way of each of those aims, but it looks like there might be a new one: if Amazon's investors see many more quarters like these last two, they may not stick around for the promised light at the end of the tunnel.

The Grand Central Apple Store, a recent opening by the company. Photograph: Apple

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.