Thursday, July 19, 2012

EBay, Mr. Market, and Amazon's Q2 Results

This is a shared post with, re-posted here because of its obvious ties to the Shleifer Effect, Mr. Market, profitability bias, and other investing concepts we discuss. 

Mr. Market is a funny dude. At this writing AMZN is trading up about five percent on the day. The reason? eBay.

Well, eBay plus lofty expectations that Amazon's current positive trend continues through its Q2 earnings announcement next Thursday. A look over the last few quarters of the relationship among earnings expectations, actual earnings, and Mr. Market's reaction...let's just say it shows an interesting dynamic.

The eBay Angle

eBay announced its Q2 results last night and exceeded every consensus expectation on the metrics Wall Street uses to gauge its performance. (See Scot Wingo's always well-informed discussion of the results at eBay Strategies here.) Mr. Market has pushed its price up over 10 percent on the day, touching - ever so briefly - its own 52-week high.

One of those important Wall Street metrics is eBay's Gross Merchandise Value (more or less its auction and marketplace revenue) growing at 15 percent, which pretty much matches the growth rate of the overall e-commerce market.

So here comes Mr. Market's logic...

Since Amazon has been crushing the e-commerce growth rate, outpacing it 2:1 with Q1 results in April when Amazon increased revenue 34 percent. And...with eBay showing it can match industry growth in the most recent quarter, then there must be some good tailwinds for e-commerce right now. Ergo...Amazon is going to kill it with Q2 results next Thursday! So let's bet on Amazon! 

Well, Mr. Market, you may be right. I'll grant that Amazon will probably outpace industry growth yet again. But what happens if earnings - once again - don't follow revenue growth? Moreover, what if earnings  (gasp!) disappear altogether for Q2 as Amazon has suggested is a distinct possibility?

Going Back in Time (But Just a Little)

Let's go back in time to look at Mr. Market's previous reactions to Amazon's earnings. We'll use some charts based on Wall Street analyst estimates of Amazon's performance (provided here by Businessweek) and go backwards from most recent.

Last quarter, Q1 results, Amazon surprised Mr. Market by earning .28 cents per share. This after his consensus estimate was .07. The stock shot up about 15 percent in the two trading sessions immediately following the news. It was the second such positive report, which leads us to...

Q4 of 2011 Amazon reported .38 cents per share. Mr. Market has expected .18. A 110 percent upside surprise. The stock actually fell seven percent on the news. Maybe that's because Mr. Market still had not recuperated from the hangover caused by the previous quarter's different kind of surprise...

In Q3 of 2011 Mr. Market had high hopes for Amazon. He was expecting .25 per share after Amazon had posted a hefty .41 cents per share in the previous period. He was hoping for the trend to continue, and in anticipation of it he had run up the stock price by about ten percent since the last earnings announcement. Amazon only earned .14 cents per share. Mr. Market's great hopes were dashed, and he punished Amazon, sending its stock price plummeting from about $225 to about $200 within a couple days. It went as low as $173 before starting to climb back up again.

Over this past year, Amazon has been nothing if not volatile. Google Finance is quick to highlight its 52-week range as 166.97 - 246.71. That's a wide spread, indicative of Mr. Market and this game of expectations he likes to play...and the bi-polar extremes that take over depending on whether Amazon has lived up to his expectations.

Q2 2012 and the Profitability Bias

Well Mr. Market's expectations for next week's results are not too lofty. At least as conveyed by the consensus estimates. It's at .03 cents per share (though the range is quite wide: .17 cents on the high side and .23 LOSS on the low side).

But the reaction today to eBay's results suggest to me that there exists loftier expectations than he's letting on to with the estimates. I think he secretly expects HUGE revenue numbers that will wow investors into paying even more for the privilege of owning shares.

I wouldn't bet against that happening. But even if the big revenue numbers come in and earnings disappoint, this faith in Amazon's upward performance trend is going to be dashed. And Amazon losing money in Q2 is a very real possibility. (Its guidance from the Q1 press release said this: "Operating income (loss) is expected to be between $(260) million and $40 million, or between 229% decline and 80% decline compared with second quarter 2011.") We know how heavily the company is investing in growth, and how willing it is to let those growth costs eat up profits. (See Amazon's Rapid Sales Growth...Buying the New Business?)

So, even if revenue growth blows us away, losses tend to shake investors' faith. Why? The profitability bias. It's almost as if we have an instinctive visceral reaction to seeing losses in a business that was previously showing earnings. We just can't help but think more losses are coming, that there's something wrong with the company, and that the losses will extend into future quarters. We have very weak stomachs for these things. Even if we know the business has staying power, is investing heavily in initiatives to make even better profits in the future, or is just going through a temporary funk. We just get spooked. We overreact and send the price down.

That's the basis for the Shleifer Effect

Note that I'm making no predictions for Amazon's results next week. I am, however, highlighting the appearance of high expectations combined with the POSSIBILITY (nothing more than that) of Amazon not satisfying those expectations. Plus, we've seen what happens to the stock price when Mr. Market's expectations are dashed.

I'll end with this incredibly inappropriate teaser...

Amazon finished today at 226.17. That's almost exactly where it was immediately prior to the Q3 2011 update when it disappointed and proceeded to fall to its year lows over the next three months.

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