Amazon reports profit plummeting, stocks hit record high

Bizarro world in Wall Street.

Wall Street really is bizarro-land. Yesterday afternoon, Amazon reported that growth in revenue and earnings per share for the fourth quarter of 2012 was below expectations ($21.27bn and $0.21 respectively), and that profit actually fell year-on-year for the same period (down to $97m). In addition, the company gave weaker-than-expected sales guidance for the first quarter of 2013, estimating $15-16.6bn versus expectations of $16.9bn.

In response to the news, shares jumped 11 per cent in after-hours trading, to an all-time high for the company. (The increase has settled down since to just 8.5 per cent.)

Matt Yglesias gives the best response:

Amazon, as best I can tell, is a charitable organization being run by elements of the investment community for the benefit of consumers… Amazon sells things to people at prices that seem impossible because it actually is impossible to make money that way.

As I wrote last week, it's this side of Amazon, far more than its UK tax avoidance, which is ultimately responsible for the demise of HMV. The company apparently has the most trusting, long-termist investors in the world, who are prepared to wait through quarter after quarter of negligible growth — and outright loss — to reach the mythical period when the company will become profitable.

Some of the news in Amazon's earnings call does imply that that period might be getting closer. The company announced that ebook sales was a "multi-billion dollar" category, and grew by 70 per cent in the last year, compared to just 5 per cent growth for physical book sales. With Amazon aggressively fighting to cut out middlemen from ebooks, and the naturally low marginal cost of selling them, the potential for a higher profit margin is there. But the company, for the moment, is responding by cutting prices (even down to zero), not increasing its margin.

And ultimately, even if investors do think that profitability for Amazon will come in their lifetime, they have to take it on trust, because the company also shows no hint of changing its pattern of being one of the most opaque in the business (even Apple releases more hard numbers than Amazon). There are no numbers at all for Kindle sales, more are there absolute figures for ebook sales.

One day, Amazon may succeed in out-competing every other retailer, and gaining monopoly profits. But there's no hint here that that day is nearing.

Photograph: Getty Images

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.