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.

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.