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What to Watch When Amazon.com, Inc. Reports Fourth-Quarter Earnings

By Anders Bylund - Jan 26, 2016 at 9:36PM

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It's not all about the bottom-line numbers, or even the cash flows. Investors need to focus on what management is paying the most attention to.

Amazon.com (AMZN -1.30%) will report fourth-quarter results after the closing bell on Thursday. It's time to take a look at what to expect from the online retailer and computing platform trendsetter.

By the numbers
Amazon offers limited financial guidance from one quarter to the next. In the fourth quarter, sales are expected to rise roughly 20% year over year, landing near $35 billion. Management left a large margin of error in this figure, as the revenue range runs from $33.5 billion to $36.75 billion.

But the operating income result is even less predictable. Here, Amazon guides to anything between $80 million and $1.28 billion, compared with $591 million in the year-ago quarter. At the midpoint of that overwhelming range, you'd see 15% annual growth.

These are adjusted figures, assuming $620 million in stock-based compensation and amortization of intangible assets. Traditional GAAP profits might be printed in red ink, but free cash flows for the holiday quarter are likely to spike into multiple billions of dollars. That's how Amazon's wide-ranging seasonality tends to roll this time of year:

AMZN Free Cash Flow (Quarterly) Chart

AMZN Free Cash Flow (Quarterly) data by YCharts

What to watch for
The numbers rarely tell the whole story, of course. While Amazon's holiday sales absolutely matter, there are many other items for investors to look for in this fourth-quarter report.

First, the cloud computing platform known as Amazon Web Services, or AWS, is now reported as a separate business segment. Over the past nine months, that operation delivered net sales of $5.5 billion and $1.2 billion in segment-level operating profits. That's 7.7% of Amazon's total revenues but 42% of the company's segment operating income.

In short, AWS is a both very profitable and rapidly growing operation. Amazon has recently expended that business even further, building new data hubs in South Korea, in Mumbai, and across the Americas. That will add to the operating costs behind AWS but also shows Amazon's commitment to growing this business even further.

Whatever management says about AWS on Thursday, it will be worth your time to pay attention to it.

Prime time
But frankly, Amazon CFO Brian Olsavsky will likely spend a lot more time talking about Amazon Prime.

The free shipping feature, which also includes access to Amazon's streaming video and music offerings and much more, is an impressive customer loyalty program. In the third-quarter earnings call, Prime was mentioned 62 times. Let me visualize that for you:

The most common words in Amazon's third-quarter call. Prime, growth, and AWS are standouts. Word cloud by the author, using Wordclouds.com.

And why not? Management expected the majority of Amazon's holiday shipments to fall under the Prime umbrella. The company is tight-lipped regarding the number of Prime subscribers, but analysts speculate that there might be 50 million to 60 million accounts.

More detail on this would be welcome, but don't hold your breath waiting for Olsavsky to spill the beans.

Anders Bylund has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends 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.

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