Like many of its peers in the e-commerce industry, eBay (EBAY -2.91%) closed out a tough 2022 on a positive note. The marketplace platform reported in late February that sales declined only slightly through late December. Executives said that surprisingly strong result was a testament to eBay's flexible operating model.

But the company hasn't made much progress at slowing the pace at which buyers are leaving its platform. Sales volumes have declined at a double-digit rate for several consecutive quarters, too. So let's look at the bullish and bearish readings around this business to see which one applies better to eBay today.

The bearish reading

Yes, eBay's 1% revenue decline was better than Wall Street had expected for the fourth-quarter selling period. The company saw success in its advertising products, and consumers generally kept up their spending despite slowing economic growth.

"Our Q4 results demonstrate the continued resilience of our marketplace amid economic uncertainty," CEO Jamie Iannone told investors.

But eBay's 6% volume decline doesn't seem as impressive when compared to the 4% downtick that Etsy (ETSY -2.11%) just reported for the same period. Etsy's marketplace also shed just 1% of its buyer pool compared to big gains a year ago. eBay's growth hangover is more pronounced, with buyer losses landing at 9% in the fourth quarter.

These results imply continued growth struggles ahead even as compared to some industry peers. eBay's more-mature business might make it harder for it to achieve strong sales growth even during the next e-commerce upswing.

The bullish reading

On the bright side, eBay hit the top end of management's sales and earnings targets for 2022, indicating that its turnaround strategy is working. In the fourth quarter, the company also achieved a 13.8% take rate (seller fees as a percentage of revenue), its highest in more than a year and a fifth consecutive uptick in that core metric.

Gains here reflect pricing power and eBay's growing portfolio of services. A big part of the bullish thesis for the stock relies on continuing to boost that take rate toward the high teen percentages.

And eBay's finances are impressive. Its operating margin has improved in each of the last two quarters despite slowing sales trends. It routinely converts nearly 30% of revenue into operating profit, making it much more efficient than Etsy today.

EBAY Operating Margin (TTM) Chart

EBAY operating margin (TTM) data by YCharts TTM = trailing 12 months.

What's more, eBay is also far more generous with its cash returns, partly thanks to its larger, more mature business. The company pays a steady dividend and spends aggressively on stock buybacks. Cash returns passed $400 million last quarter while free cash flow was $533 million.

While no stock will deliver everything an investor could want, eBay shares provide exposure to a growing industry, plenty of direct cash returns, and relatively low risk compared with traditional e-commerce retailers. The stock has also become cheaper in the past year, relative to Etsy and the wider market.

In exchange for those positive factors, investors have to accept the potential for weaker sales growth in 2023 and beyond. Management is calling for a roughly 1% uptick in the first quarter, for example. As a result, growth stock investors might want to look elsewhere, while there's a lot to like about eBay for more cautious investors.