Amazon.com's (AMZN 1.41%) gradual evolution from a small online bookseller to a titan of the digital retail space has produced staggering returns on capital, especially for the brave few who were smart to enough to grab shares early in the company's metamorphosis. However, these types of rocket-fueled growth stocks are exceedingly difficult to spot, even during the middle of their radical transformation into giants of their respective industries.
Given the herculean task of unearthing growth stocks capable of matching -- or perhaps exceeding -- Amazon's jaw-dropping ascension, we turned to three of our contributors for their thoughts. They suggested that Organovo Holdings (ONVO), Facebook (META -0.54%), and Snap (SNAP 2.10%)might all turn out to be Amazon's equal or even its superior down the road. Read on to find out why.
This speculative tissue engineering company could one day revolutionize drug discovery and development
George Budwell (Organovo Holdings): If you're hunting for stocks that can outperform Amazon's ginormous return on capital, look for companies developing potentially game-changing technologies. Organovo Holdings, a 3-D bioprinting company, may be one of those companies.
Organovo hopes its 3-D bioprinted tissues can become an essential part of the drug discovery and development process. The selling point is that tens of billions of dollars are wasted each year on experimental drugs that fail to perform as expected once human trials commence. Around 90% of cancer drugs fail to reach the market, and Alzheimer's disease drug candidates have a humbling failure rate of 99%.
Organovo's technology, in theory, could streamline the drug discovery and development processes by allowing clinicians to assess the efficacy and safety of experimental compounds on human tissues in the lab. The problem -- and it's a big one -- is that Organovo's business model is predicated on a tectonic shift in how drugs are developed in the United States and other Western nations. And that's not going to be easy, despite the well-known inefficiencies in the current system that directly contributes to the sky-high prices of new drugs.
If Organovo can persuade pharma companies and regulators alike to shift toward bioprinted human tissues early in the discovery process, this small-cap company has the potential to generate astronomical returns on capital. Organovo, after all, is staring down a commercial opportunity that might be as high as $50 billion per year. The downside is that this biotech is quickly running out of cash, and there's no clear indication that its bold business model will ultimately pan out.
Just scratching the surface
Tim Brugger (Facebook): Finding a stock with the potential to outpace Amazon is a tall order, in part because fundamental analysis gets thrown out the window. But at some point, valuation and rapidly increasing profitability will become factors, and when they do, Facebook is a name that practically can't miss.
After reporting yet another stellar quarter, Facebook is enjoying a 28% share-price jump this year, comparable to Amazon's year-to-date rise. At nearly $412 billion in market capitalization, Facebook's size puts it in the same ballpark as Amazon. However, Facebook is continuing to grow like an upstart.
Amazon's sales increased 23% last quarter -- nothing to sneeze at. But Facebook's revenue, keeping in mind that the two industry stalwarts are nearly the same size, more than doubled that of Amazon's, soaring 49% to $8 billion.
The best part of Facebook's growth is that it's just scratching the surface. Instagram is already a social-media force in its own right, let alone a revenue-generating machine, along with both WhatsApp and Messenger, which each boast over 1 billion monthly average users. Facebook's skyrocketing growth is poised to continue for years to come.
Again, fundamentals aren't necessarily relevant in the case of Amazon, but its forward price-to-earnings ratio is 122, while Facebook has every bit as many growth opportunities, if not more, and is trading at just 29 times future earnings. Toss in a 76% jump in per-share earnings to $1.04 last quarter, and Facebook could eventually put Amazon to shame.
To travel fast, one must travel light
Rich Smith (Snap): Anniversaries are for celebrating, and with Amazon.com turning 20 this week, there's good reason for investors to cheer the stock's 4,900-fold return on investment over the past two decades. As The Wall Street Journal put it, "a $10,000 investment in Amazon.com [at its IPO] 20 years ago would be worth $4.9 million today."
That return worked out to about 36% annually, every year, for 20 years straight. And the fact that Amazon stock isn't even slowing down -- growing 38% in price over the past year alone -- is simply astounding. What would it take for another stock to put Amazon's returns to shame, then?
For that, I think you'd need a company with an even lighter business model than Amazon boasts -- a business not weighed down by Amazon's need to store and ship physical goods, and to build warehouses to hold them, robots to load them, and airplanes to carry them. A business composed primarily of composed of ones and zeros. In short, an entirely online business like Snap.
Last year, Amazon spent $6.7 billion on capital expenditures. Snap got by on just $66.4 million -- less than 1% of Amazon's capital spending. With such light capital requirements, analysts expect Snap to grow its profit at the rate of 70% annually over the next five years, versus less than 40% for Amazon.
Granted, much of this growth lies far in the future. Snap isn't even profitable yet, while Amazon already is -- and wildly so. Still, if Snap achieves net profitability by 2019, as analysts predict, and nearly quintuples its profits by 2020, as they also predict, then a goal of 70% average annual growth may not be as far-fetched as it sounds, even after Snap turns the corner toward real profits.
While I can't say for certain that Snap will achieve those profits, or that it will put Amazon's returns to shame, if there's anyone that can do it, I think it will have to be a business like Snap.