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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.