Last night CNBC premiered their newest documentary entitled Amazon Rising. I tuned in, as I have thoroughly enjoyed most of their previous productions. I found this one to have a noticeably anti-Amazon vibe, but none of the revelations about the company’s business practices should have surprised many people, or struck them as having “crossed the line.” For me, by far the most annoying aspect of the one-hour show was the continued insistence that Amazon “barely makes any money” and “trades profits for success.” It’s a shame that the media continues to run with this theme (or at least not correct it), even when the numbers don’t support it.
Most savvy business reporters understand the difference between accounting earnings and cash flow, the latter being the more relevent metric for profitability, as it measures the amount of actual cash you have made running your business. There are numerous accounting rules that can increase or decrease the income you report on your tax return, but have no impact on the cash you have collected from your customers. A good example would be your own personal tax return. Did the taxable income you reported on your 2013 tax return exactly match the dollar amount of compensation that was deposited into your bank account during the year? Almost by definition the answer is “no” given that various tax deductions impact the income you report and therefore the taxes you pay. But for you personally, the cash you received (either on a net or gross basis) is really all that matters. One can try to minimize their tax bill (legally, of course) by learning about every single deduction that may apply to them, but it doesn’t change the amount of pre-tax cash they actually collected.
As a result, the relevent metric for Amazon (or any other company) when measuring profitability should be operating cash flow. It’s fancy term that simply means the amount of actual net cash generated (in this case “generated” means inflows less outflows, not simply inflows) by your business operations. In the chart below I have calculated operating cash flow margins (actual net cash profit divided by revenue) for five large retailing companies — Costco, Walgreen, Target, Wal-Mart, and Amazon — during the past 12 months. The media would have you belive that Amazon would lag on this metric, despite the cognitive dissonance that would result if you stopped to think about how Amazon has been able to grow as fast as they have and enter new product areas so aggressively. After all, if they don’t make any money, where have the billions of dollars required for these ventures come from? The answer, of course, is that Amazon is actually quite profitable.
As you can see, if we measure “profitability” by actual cash collected from customers, over and above actual cash expenses, as opposed to the accounting figure shown on their corporate tax return or audited income statement, Amazon’s profit margins are actually higher than each of those other four companies. Shame on the media for giving everyone a pass when they insist Amazon doesn’t make money, or at least “barely” does so. They make more money, on a cash basis anyway, than many other large, well-known retailers whose profit margins are rarely questioned.
Full Disclosure: Long Amazon and Target at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time.