Lately, there’s been no shortage of positive coverage on Amazon – and for good reasons. The vast majority of retail is struggling with declining same-store-sales, yet, Amazon continues to post a torrid pace of growth despite its size. In FY16, Amazon grew North America segment sales by 25%, and that growth came at the expense of the rest of the retail industry.
From a business model perspective and from a consumer perspective, Amazon appears to have built an incredible flywheel that is gathering momentum. As the rest of the retail industry is forced to retrench and cut costs (e.g. reduce stores, reduce staff, reduce inventory / SKUs…), it serves to further widen the gap in consumer experience as Amazon continues to invest. Amazon’s product assortment advantage, delivery speed advantage, data advantage all continue to grow. And the wider the gap, the more inevitable Amazon’s dominance.
It’s not hard to see why sentiment has swung so strongly in Amazon’s favor.
However, as an investor, it is almost always prudent to revisit assumptions when the market believes so overwhelmingly in a single narrative.
Amazon’s Overlooked Advantage
Recently, I had the opportunity to catch up with the CFO / Chief Strategist of an Amazon competitor. Although this company is doing quite well and holding its own within the retail space, it’s clear that a full-scale showdown with Amazon could be looming. And such a showdown will be painful.
During this conversation, the company asked me an unusual question and offered an interesting remark: How would I feel if the company significantly ramped up investments to fend off competition (i.e. Amazon)? And, perhaps the more interesting part, the CFO remarked that it is unfair that Amazon has the advantage of an investor base that does not care whether they produce any earnings at all, only that they have the ability to do so. He wished he had a similar investor base because it would allow him to compete on a more level playing field.
Those words stuck with me because it’s true. A large part of Amazon’s competitive advantage in pricing and consumer experience (driven by Amazon’s large investment programs) would be far harder if investors required Amazon to produce stronger earnings. After all, the rest of the retail industry is unable to respond precisely because they are forced to defend earnings and unable to invest aggressively to ensure that they exist in the future.
In essence, Amazon’s continued success perhaps does depend in part on capital markets cooperation.
The Dangers of Capital Market Dependence
Reliance on capital markets usually don’t lead to good places. Although it is efficient to utilize capital markets to support operations and growth, a dependence on capital markets has led to the downfall of many companies.
For example, levered companies that suddenly discover that maturing debt can no longer be rolled over.
Or roll-ups / M&A-driven companies that suddenly discover that the market is no longer going to allow them to issue high-valuation stock to purchase low-valuation targets.
Or REITs and MLPs that generally have high payout ratios and therefore require capital markets to grow.
The moment the doors to the capital markets close, companies that depend on capital markets find themselves with few friends and tough choices.
How it Could Hit Amazon
I should reiterate that all of this is purely conjectural, and I remain a fairly firm believer in Amazon’s business model, but investors shouldn’t overlook the small points of weaknesses especially when consensus is overwhelmingly bullish.
If capital markets suddenly stop giving Amazon a pass (which wouldn’t be particularly outrageous since investors did become skittish just a few years ago), Amazon would likely have to pull back on fulfillment and content, which represent two of the largest costs. And these are likely the two strongest differentiators of Amazon’s customer experience vs. traditional retailers.
And on the cash flow side, perhaps stock-based compensation would need to be swapped for cash compensation if equity investors stop believing. In FY16, Amazon recognized $3bn of stock-based compensation, which is quite sizable compared to the $3.9bn of FCF less finance lease repayments and assets acquire under capital leases.
Jeff Bezos has built an incredible business in Amazon that is gathering strength. However, Amazon’s strength (and momentum) relies at least in part on investor trust. Like a flywheel, speed will beget speed. But if investor sentiment flags even if momentarily, the flywheel’s momentum could slow considerably.
Disclosure: I have no direct beneficial interest in AMZN as of publishing date and have no intent to initiate a position within the next 48 hours.