Under founder and CEO Jeff Bezos' leadership, Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) has grown from a small online bookseller into the world's biggest online retailer today. As a result, the e-commerce giant's stock has soared over 15,000% since Amazon's initial public offering in 1997. Yet, despite bringing in more than $74 billion in revenue last year, Amazon only generated $274 million in net income over that period. With barely any profits to show for its outsized business, many investors are torn over whether or not Amazon stock is overvalued today. Below, three of the Motley Fool's top analysts offer their take on this popular debate.
Anders Bylund: Many critics say that Amazon doesn't make money. And judging by the mainstream headlines, that's absolutely right -- the e-tailer is looking back at a $127 million net loss over the last four quarters. But that's not the whole story. In fact, it's not even the most important part of Amazon's profit picture. You see, the negative earnings on display here aren't taking money out of Amazon's bank accounts. The company actually earns very healthy cash profits, and it's on a regular basis:
Earnings are easy to discuss, and often make for a snappy sound bite, but in the end, they are merely an accounting artifact. These are the profits seen on the bottom line of Amazon's tax filings. Certainly a useful number, but it's a far cry from explaining how Amazon's business moves cash into or out of the bank vaults.
That's where free cash flows come in.
Stripping away the effects of Amazon's tax-reducing tactics, which chiefly boils down to stock-based compensation, turns that net loss into a healthy inrush of fresh cash. Some unprofitable companies keep the lights burning by raising debt or selling more shares on the open market. Not Amazon, where a reliable supply of cash profits lets management focus on simply running the best darn retail operation on the planet.
So the next time you see Amazon flagged as an unprofitable business, and therefore not worthy of your investment, take another look at the company's latest cash flow statement. Your racing pulse should settle down immediately.
Joe Tenebruso: Amazon.com always seems to look ridiculously expensive, particularity on a price-to-earnings basis. In fact, here's what I wrote when I purchased shares of Amazon in Tier 1, the real-money portfolio that I manage for The Fool.
I will not deny that Amazon's shares are expensive. At more than 100 times earnings, Amazon is much more richly valued than most stocks I will purchase in the Tier 1 portfolio. But I've been following Amazon for over a decade, and the stock has never looked cheap. Quite simply, this is a superior business of which I want to own a piece. And although shares look expensive now, I believe they will be worth much more in the future.
Amazon's earnings are being depressed by the massive investments the company is making to fuel its torrid growth. There will come a time when Amazon dials back these capital expenditures, and when that happens, Amazon's cash flow will explode. I can't say for certain when that will happen, but to put a long-term value on the business, I look to Wal-Mart's $200 billion market cap, which I believe Amazon will ultimately surpass.
I wrote that in December of 2011. Amazon's shares are up more than 70% since then.
Skeptics will quickly point out that we are still waiting for Amazon to scale back its capital expenditures, which actually rose from $1.8 billion in 2011 to more than $3.4 billion in 2013. But if you consider yourself a long-term minded, Foolish investor, the question you should ask yourself is "Will those investments pay off in the future?" I believe – strongly – that the answer to that question is yes. Amazon is widening its moat by strengthening its distribution network and delivering even more value to its customers. In the process, it is positioning itself to capture a growing share of the booming e-commerce market, along with years and even decades of strong free cash flows that will grow increasingly larger over time.
Make no mistake, my fellow Fools, an investment in Amazon requires a steadfast belief that the heavy investments the company is making today will result in a far more profitable future for the e-commerce titan. I'm confident that CEO Jeff Bezos and his team will deliver on that promise. Are you? Let us know in the comments section below.
Tamara Walsh: By traditional valuation metrics, Amazon's stock is wildly overvalued. The stock is currently trading around $326 a share, or more than 20% below its 52-week high. However, it still looks expensive with a forward price-to-earnings ratio of 352. Additionally, the stock's price-to-sales ratio of 1.82 is pointedly higher than the industry median of 1.4. Together, these metrics indicate that Amazon is overvalued. Nonetheless, the market didn't care before and it shouldn't now.
If you're an Amazon shareholder then you know this is a stock to hold for decades not months. One of the main reasons the e-tailer hardly earns a profit these days is because it is reinvesting hoards of cash into its various business ventures. Some of the company's most promising initiatives include Amazon Prime, fresh grocery deliveries, Amazon Web Services, Fire TV, and the Amazon app store. Tens of millions of consumers are now proud paying Prime members. Meanwhile, the company recently expanded its Amazon Fresh grocery delivery service to more cities including Los Angeles and San Francisco . It also debuted new hardware products like Fire TV and continues to quickly grow its web services business.
All of these initiatives cost Amazon money to grow and maintain. However, they also hold the promise of becoming stand-alone businesses that could generate loads of profits for Amazon down the road. Ultimately, Amazon is a growth stock. For investors betting on high growth companies such as Amazon you must be able to look past the lofty valuations and understand that this is a long-term investment.
Anders Bylund owns shares of Amazon.com. Joe Tenebruso has no position in any stocks mentioned. Tamara Rutter owns shares of Amazon.com. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.