I may be the only analyst who isn't buying into the stock hype surrounding Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) these days. Our newsletters can't seem to give the stock enough love, our analysts are putting real money behind it, and now Jeff Bezos is getting accolades for CEO of the year. Remember how well that went for Reed Hastings, who was winning best CEO accolades last year? I'm afraid Bezos is the new Hastings and Amazon is the new Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) . And I don't mean that in a good way.
Amazon has done a great job thrusting itself into our lives in ways extending far beyond books, but like Netflix, it has done so at the expense of growing profits. Eventually the company is going to ask for more from customers and that's when I think the market will begin to realize that Amazon's competitive position is tenuous at best.
Leading the low-margin online retailers
There's no doubt that Amazon is the leader of the online retailing pack, but is that really a group of companies you want to be out in front of? Online retailers have beaten up on the likes of Best Buy (NYSE: BBY ) and Barnes & Noble because it can operate with lower gross margins than their brick-and-mortar competitors. Undercutting competitors isn't exactly a formula for building wildly successful high tech businesses like Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) and Google, whom Amazon is now trying to compete with.
And it isn't like Amazon doesn't have fierce competition in every space the company plays. Apple currently owns the tablet space where Amazon is trying to make inroads, Netflix is still the dominant streaming company, and there are online retailers galore that will keep margins low in that space. Sales may continue to grow but it isn't like Amazon will ever be in a high-margin business.
Creating new ways to lose money
The Kindle Fire is the first real threat to Apple's iPad but the device sells for a loss and is really only a gateway for the company to get customers to buy books and apps and expand its Prime streaming businesses.
Just ask Netflix how strong margins are in the streaming business when media companies come wanting their piece of the pie and consumers balk at higher prices. The current $79 a year Amazon charges for Prime comes with very few attractive titles to stream and throws in free two-day shipping just for good measure. That combination can't last long at that price.
So like Netflix before it, the question becomes: How will Amazon make money on streaming or on its tablet devices?
You're paying what for this stock?
My biggest problem with Amazon's stock right now is the absurd price it is trading for.
The tech industry is full of mouth-watering value stocks that I can get excited about. Intel (Nasdaq: INTC ) has a strong competitive moat, $15.2 billion in cash, and still trades at just a 10.8 P/E ratio. Microsoft has $57.4 billion in cash and a measly 10.3 P/E ratio. Even the mighty Google looks attractive, trading at 21.4 times trailing earnings and sitting on $42.6 billion in cash and equivalents.
Amazon, on the other hand, is priced as if its business is going to perform flawlessly for the next decade. The company's trailing P/E ratio is an eye popping 96 and its forward P/E ratio is only one point better at 95 times earnings. This from a company whose earnings are down year-over-year and has underperformed expectations two of the last four quarters. Usually those multiples are reserved for companies going in the opposite direction Amazon is said to be headed.
If you've drunk the Kool-Aid on Amazon and think I'm crazy, let me point out that I may have been the only Fool crying foul when Netflix was trading at the same insane multiples. It took a while but my thesis was finally proven right when the market's golden boy, Hastings, made a few mistakes and customers started leaving the company. I'm not claiming I can time the market with Amazon this time but I don't think the company will be on its high horse forever.
My last beef with Amazon is their website. It reminds me of going to Yahoo.com in the early 2000s. The site is filled with so much information and so many links I can't wait to get out and move on to something that doesn't make my eyes hurt.
The shopping experience is important on the Internet, just as it is in a mall. Amazon may have millions of customers, but right now the experience looks like a flea market when compared to other online retailers.
Foolish bottom line
I just can't get excited about a company that has falling margins, is selling its newest product at a loss, and trades at extremely high multiples. In time, Amazon may catch up to those multiples, but I think the risk it won't is too high.