The Truth Behind Amazon’s Reported Earnings

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by Dave Kranzler, Investment Research Dynamics:

This article below is from my Seeking Alpha post earlier this week.  I’ve studied AMZN’s financials and business model for several years. I’m probably one of the few analysts who bothers to scour the footnotes of AMZN’s financials. I was taught by the best at University of Chicago to start with the footnotes and work “up” when pulling apart GAAP financial statements.  I can say with 100% certainty that the “Free Cash Flow” that Jeff Bezos promotes with ardent zeal is a fictional number, if not fraud.  The SEC looks the other way.  Suffice it to say that AMZN’s true trailing twelve month free cash flow  based on strict GAAP is nearly negative $4 billion. I demonstrate this below.

Amazon Perfects the “Beat the Street” Game – Amazon (AMZN) reported 52 cents per share “earnings” on October 26th vs. the consensus 2 cent estimate after the market closed. The stock soared 7.8% after hours as hedge fund algos and retail daytraders chased the stock higher on the headline report. AMZN “walked” Street analysts’ estimates down to a number that was easy to “beat.” Ninety days ago the consensus estimate for Q3 was $1.09, with one estimate as high as $1.59. cents. By the time AMZN was about to report, the consensus estimate was two cents. This is how the game is played.

The graphic below from Yahoo Finance shows a 3-month timeline of this “walk-down” process for AMZN’s consensus earnings forecast for Q4 2017, Q1 2018 and the full-year 2017. The current estimates were again revised after the Company’s Q3 report (source: Yahoo.com/finance w/my edits):

Make no mistake: the company knowingly “guides” analysts down in order to engineer a “headline” surprise. The “beat the numbers” game is one of the many games connected with corporate earnings reports. That said, AMZN’s actual EPS in Q3 2017 was the same as Q3 2016 – zero EPS growth. Bear in mind that GAAP acquisition accounting is heavily at play here. Acquisition accounting enables a company to boost revenues and hide expenses.

[Note: All numbers are taken directly from AMZN’s Third Quarter 10-Q]

Here’s a fact that Wall Street or Bubblevision won’t report: in Q3 2016, AMZN’s GAAP tax rate was 47% vs 18% in Q3 2017. Anyone who has taken a basic accounting course knows that the GAAP tax rate is highly arbitrary and a major source of EPS manipulation. If AMZN had simply used a constant GAAP tax rate in Q3, its net income in Q3 would have declined to $200 million this year from $252 million in Q3 last year (remember these are GAAP earnings, not actual cash earnings). On this basis, AMZN’s EPS would have shown a drop from 53 cents last year to 41 cents this year. Anyone paying the current price of AMZN at a PE of 290 is likely ignorant of the fact that AMZN’s operating income is declining and its debt outstanding is increasing.

AMZN’s operating income plunged yr/yr for Q3 by $228 million, or nearly 40%. Operating income in its North American e-commerce business plunged $143 million, or 56%. AMZN’s e-commerce business lost $824 million on an operating business in Q3 (see p. 26 from the 10-Q linked above). YTD AMZN’s e-commerce business has lost nearly $1 billion). It likely would have been worse without Whole Foods numbers in mix. This is because, when AMZN acquired WFM, WFM’s operating margin was 4%. AMZN’s has been running near zero – it was 0.7% in Q3. Acquisition accounting, among other things, allows AMZN to present its numbers “as if,” meaning “as if” AMZN owned WFM since AMZN’s inception.

One of the primary reasons that AMZN’s operating margins decline continuously is the cost of fulfillment. “Fulfillment” is the cost of getting a product from the warehouse to the customer’s doorstep. In Q3 2016, AMZN’s fulfillment costs were 19.4% of product sales. By Q3 2017, it had jumped to 22.3%. Fulfillment is a cornerstone of AMZN’s e-commerce model. Offering free shipping to Prime members is a guaranteed money-loser.

In general and on average, AMZN loses money on every e-commerce sale. AMZN’s e-commerce/consumer products operating margin will continue to decline because the Company is implementing an aggressive price-cut program at Whole Foods. This will drive the WFM business margins toward zero.

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