Amazon: the backlash backlash

Minuscule profits might be a sign of health.

The backlash against the backlash against Amazon is upon us. The question, you will recall, is why don't Amazon's shareholders care that the company makes no money, and has never stated any plans as to how it will make money?

Part of the answer to that is that it's pretty obvious what investors are hoping Amazon's actual plan is: use its razor-thin margins to drive all competitors out of business, then exploit barriers to market to extort monopoly profits from customers. Unfortunately, that would be illegal. So investors are in a nudge-nudge, wink-wink standoff with the company as it insists that it has no plans to leverage monopolies, and its shareholders respond with exaggerated nods and over-loud exclamations of "sure you don't".

But Eugene Wei, who worked at Amazon from 1997 to 2004, has presented an alternative view of why the company's shareholders might just be acting rationally even if they don't expect monopoly profits any time soon — particularly in comparison to, say, Apple.

Wei writes:

Attacking the market with a low margin strategy has other benefits, though, ones often overlooked or undervalued. For one thing, it strongly deters others from entering your market. Study disruption in most businesses and it almost always comes from the low end. Some competitor grabs a foothold on the bottom rung of the ladder and pulls itself upstream. But if you're already sitting on that lowest rung as the incumbent, it's tough for a disruptor to cling to anything to gain traction.

An incumbent with high margins, especially in technology, is like a deer that wears a bullseye on its flank. Assuming a company doesn't have a monopoly, its high margin structure screams for a competitor to come in and compete on price, if nothing else, and it also hints at potential complacency. If the company is public, how willing will they be to lower their own margins and take a beating on their public valuation?

In other words, Amazon's low margins may mean that it's making virtually no profit. But they also mean that it's guaranteed to continue making at worst virtually no profit forever — because who is seriously going to try and undercut them? Meanwhile, Apple, with its notoriously high profitability, is an obvious target for competitors who think they could do the same thing but charge less for it.

That clearly can't be the whole story. No matter how much you think Apple is a target for low-end disruption (and I'm skeptical of such claims — much of the company's margin comes from astonishing returns to scale, which isn't something a start-up can match), it's clear that its 10:1 price:earnings ratio undervalues it compared to Amazon's 3000:1. The market is implicitly predicting not just competition, but ruinous, game-changing disruption for the former, or a hundred-fold increase in profits for the latter. Or both.

But nonetheless, Wei's argument goes a long way to explaining some of what Amazon shareholders might be thinking — and maybe they aren't as bamboozled by Jeff Bezos as they seem.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos. 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.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war