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Amazon: the backlash backlash

Minuscule profits might be a sign of health.

Amazon's Jeff Bezos. Photograph: Getty Images

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.