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Amazon reports profit plummeting, stocks hit record high

Bizarro world in Wall Street.

Photograph: Getty Images

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.