E-retailing king Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) had one of its most impressive earnings reports in corporate history, potentially setting up yet another profitable year for investors. In 2015, AMZN shares returned a torridly ridiculous 119%, while the benchmark S&P 500 essentially broke even — a bad showing by Wall Street standards. However, the markets were pointedly less enthused with the financials, dropping AMZN down to $587-even and negative for the week. What then does this mean for Amazon, and for the health of the broad consumer market?
At first glance, the sudden bearishness would appear to be an anomaly. After all, in its fourth quarter earnings report, Amazon’s top-line sales showed robust growth, increasing 22% over the year-ago quarter. Adjusted for currency fluctuations, revenue actually moved up by 26%. More importantly, net income pushed to $595 million — a company record. In Q4 of the prior year, Amazon languished with a bottom line that sank into the red at -$241 million.
Also adding to the optimism is the massive leap in Amazon’s footprint. Membership for Amazon Prime leaped to 52% against the year-ago period, contributing to an overall customer reach that officially expanded past the 300 million mark. The collective effort has succeeded in Amazon hitting a very lofty and enviable benchmark — over $100 billion in annual sales.
All this is proof positive that Amazon is the stock to buy, and that the American consumer market is much healthier than previously advertised. Yet what would explain the near -8% drop last Friday? Surely, if AMZN was such a bulletproof opportunity, traders would have jumped on the bandwagon.
In this case, I believe that Wall Street insiders are relying on forward baseline assumptions. First, Amazon’s guidance for calendar year 2016 was very broad — either the company will do very well or it will do very poorly. Investors don’t like to see that much spread built into a corporate forecast and they punished AMZN stock as such.
However, the bigger issue may be cannibalization. That is, sales within the vast retail market are not collectively moving higher. It’s interesting to note that for earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA), Amazon has generally accelerated sharply, while brick-and-mortar competitor Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE:WMT) has decelerated. In mathematical terms, since the fiscal year ending 2009, there is a -38% correlation between the EBITDA of Amazon and Wal-Mart.
Would that be enough to scare away investors from Amazon? Probably not in the immediate time frame. However, this demonstrates that an individually strong performance for Amazon doesn’t necessarily equate to a broadly strengthening retail or consumer market. In fact, preliminary data for consumer sentiment shows that year-over-year, Americans are losing confidence in the economy.
Taken as a collective whole, Amazon’s gain is Wal-Mart’s loss. If you’re an Amazon investor, life is good. But for the rest of the country, this indicates that the fiscally engineered economic recovery still is left begging.