The Next Big Short

Tyler Durden's picture

Submitted by David Stockman via Contra Corner blog,

If you have forgotten your Gulliver’s Travels, recall that Jonathan Swift described the people of Brobdingnag as being as tall as church steeples and having a ten foot stride. Everything else was in proportion - with rats the size of mastiffs and the latter the size of four elephants, while flies were “as big as a Dunstable lark” and wasps were the size of partridges.

Hence the word for this fictional land has come to mean colossal, enormous, gigantic, huge, immense or, as the urban dictionary puts it, “really f*cking big”.

That would also describe the $325 billion bubble which comprises Amazon’s market cap. It is at once brobdangnagian and preposterous - a trick on the casino signifying that the crowd has once again gone stark raving mad.

When you have arrived at a condition of extreme “irrational exuberance” there is probably no insult to ordinary valuation metrics that can shock. But for want of doubt consider that AMZN earned the grand sum of $79 million last quarter and $328 million for the LTM period ending in September.

That’s right. Its conventional PE multiple is 985X!

And, no, its not a biotech start-up in phase 3 FDA trials with a sure fire cancer cure set to be approved any day; its actually been around more than a quarter century, putting it in the oldest quartile of businesses in the US.

But according to the loony posse of sell-side apologists who cover the company——there are 15 buy recommendations—–Amazon is still furiously investing in “growth” after all of these years. So never mind the PE multiple; earnings are being temporarily sacrificed for growth.

Well, yes. On its approximate $100 billion in LTM sales Amazon did generate $32.6 billion of gross profit. But the great builder behind the curtain in Seattle choose to “reinvest” $5 billion in sales and marketing, $14 billion in general and administrative expense and $11.6 billion in R&D.

So there wasn’t much left for the bottom line, and not surprisingly. Amazon’s huge R&D expense alone was actually nearly three times higher than that of pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb. But apparently that’s why Bezos boldly bags the big valuation multiples.

Not so fast, we think. Is there any evidence that all this madcap “investment” in the upper lines of the P&L for all these years is showing signs of momentum in cash generation? After all, sooner or later valuation has to be about free cash flow, even if you set aside GAAP accounting income.

In fact, AMZN generated $9.8 billion in operating cash flow during its most recent LTM period and spent $7.0 billion on CapEx and other investments. So its modest $2.8 billion of free cash flow implies a multiple of 117X.

Needless to say, the sell side chorus insists that one doesn’t matter, either. At the drop of a hat Bezos could purportedly hit the investment “pause” bottom and unleash a surge of free cash flow.

The cynic might say good luck on that, considering the record. But then again, he might also ask why was Bezos’ pause button massively rerated upward just as this bull market was reaching its fevered peak?

That is, we are just completing a year in which the Fabulous Four FANG stocks (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) gained $500 billion of market cap while the remaining 496 companies in the S&P index went down by more than one-half trillion dollars.

In that context, AMZN’s market cap one year ago was just $145 billion, meaning that it gained a stunning $180 billion or 125 percent during the interim.

By contrast, its free cash flow for the year ended September 2014 was $2.3 billion, meaning not only that it grew by a modest amount, but that a year ago the so-called “market” was valuing AMZN at just 62X free cash flow. And to complete the picture, during the year ended in December 2011 Amazon generated $2.0 billion of free cash flow, meaning that is was then being valued at just 40X.

Can you say bubble mania?  Bezos is surely the greatest empire builder since Genghis Kahn, and has never wavered in his determination to spend every dime the company generates in sales. Profits be damned.

But history will surely record that the 48 months since December 2011 comprised the final stages of the most stupendous financial bubble in recorded history. During that period, the casino re-rated Amazon’s meager free cash flow from 40X to 62X to 117X on virtually no improvement in performance.

It was just plain old multiple inflation gone wild with respect to the last momo stocks standing.

We have been here before, and there is no better analogy than Cisco and its fellow shooting stars in early 2000 on the eve of the dotcom crash.

Indeed, Amazon’s $325 billion valuation is just plain irrational exuberance having one more fling. Spasms like this year $180 billion gain (125%) on the AMZN ticker or the $190 billion gain (55%) on the GOOG account are absolutely reminiscent of the final days before the tech wreck exactly 15 years ago.

In a recent post I demonstrated how the 12 Big Cap Techs of 2000—-led by Microsoft, Intel, Dell and Cisco——-saw their combined valuation soar from $900 billion to $3.8 trillion in the 48 months leading up to the March 2000 peak; and that they then plunged to just $875 billion a decade later.

To wit, their bubble era market cap got whacked by $3 trillion in the years ahead, even as their sales and earnings continued to grow. What got purged was irrational exuberance in a casino high on the central bank’s monetary heroin.

In this regard, Cisco was the poster child last time around for this kind of top-of-the-bubble disconnect.  During the 48 month run to March 2000, its market cap had exploded from $40 billion to $506 billion or by nearly 13X.

By contrast, it net income had increased from $1.0 to $2.5 billion or by just 2.5X. Accordingly, its PE multiple was rerated during this classic era of irrational exuberance from 40X to 200X.

Even then, Cisco was not only the provider of all things for the internet, but was actually run by a CEO who had a decent respect for the idea of profits.

Indeed, during the most recent twelve months in the spring of 2000 CISCO had earned a respectable $2.5 billion of net income on $15 billion of sales. Moreover, this most recent net income posting had grown for eight straight years at a spectacular 50% compound rate from $100 million in 1992.

So its earnings track record was far more impressive and reliably rising than Amazon’s recent results. In fact, AMZN’s net income peaked at $1.15 billion way back in 2010 and has not come close to that high water mark since.

Still, Cisco’s problem at the turn of the century was the market’s lunatic valuation at 200X its smartly growing net income.

But here’s the thing. Cisco was already a mature technology company. There was no growth rate in the known universe that would have permitted it to earn into a $500 billion valuation.

Even at a standard 20X market multiple on its existing fulsome net margins (17%), it would have needed $25 billion of net income on $150 billion of sales to make valuation ends meet.

In fact, during the next 15 years Cisco’s performance steadily improved,  but one and one-half decades later it is still at only one-third of the levels implied by its dotcom era market cap. That is, revenues have grown from $15 billion to nearly $50 billion, and its net income has more than tripled to nearly $10 billion per year.

Needless to say, it’s market cap today at $140 billion is just 25% of its dotcom bubble peak!

In short, its market cap was driven to the absurd height recorded in March 2000 by the final spasm of a bull market, when the punters jumped on the last momo trains out of the station.
CSCO Market Cap Chart

CSCO Market Cap data by YCharts

At the end of the day, AMZN’s current preposterous $325 billion market cap has nothing to do with the business prospects of Amazon or the considerable entrepreneurial prowess of Jeff Bezos and his army of disrupters.

It is more in the nature of financial rigor mortis - the final spasm of the robo-traders and the fast money crowd chasing one of the greatest bubbles still standing in the casino.

And, yes, notwithstanding all the “good things it brings to life” daily, it is not the present day incarnation of  even the mighty General Electric of the 1950s;  and for one blindingly obvious reason. It has never made a profit beyond occasional quarterly chump change.

Not only has its net income been falling for five years, but what it has generated in the interim is actually a joke. To wit, during the last 23 quarters its has posted cumulative sales of nearly $380 billion but only $2 billion of net income and half of that was in 2010.

That’s right. The Kool Aid drinkers in the casino are betting $325 billion on a massive e-commerce distributor of books and merchandise that has a steady state profit rate at 0.5% of sales.

Admittedly, in these waning days of the third great central bank enabled bubble of this century, GAAP net income is a decidedly quaint concept. In the casino it’s all about beanstalks which grow to the sky and sell-side gobbledygook.

Here’s how one of Silicon Valley’s most unabashed circus barkers, Piper Jaffray’s Gene Munster, explains it:

Next Steps For AWS… SaaS Applications? We believe AWS has an opportunity to move up the cloud stack to applications and leverage its existing base of AWS IaaS/PaaS 1M + users.

 

AWS dipped its toes into the SaaS pool earlier this year when it expanded its offerings to include an email management program and we believe it will continue to extend its expertise to other offerings. We do not believe that this optionality is baked into investors’ outlook for AWS.

Got that?

Instead, better try this.  As indicated above, AMZN’s operating free cash flow during its most recent LTM period was $2.76 billion compared to $2.26 billion way back in 2009.

So its six year free cash flow growth rate computes to just 3.35% per annum. And on that going nowhere track record,  AMZN is being valued at, well, like we said, 117X free cash flow!

The fact is, Amazon is one of the greatest cash burning machines ever invented. Its net revenues of just $8.5 billion in 2005 have since grown by 12X to $101 billion for the LTM period ending in September, meaning that during the last ten and three-fourths years it has booked $455 billion in sales. But its cumulative operating free cash flow over that same period was just $6 billion or 1.3% of its turnover.

So, no, Amazon is not a profit-making enterprise in any meaningful sense of the word and its stock price measures nothing more than the raging speculative juices in the casino.

In an honest free market, real investors would never give a $325 billion valuation to a business that refuses to make a profit, never pays a dividend and is a one-percenter at best in the free cash flow department—–that is, in the very thing that capitalist enterprises are born to produce.

Indeed, the Wall Street brokers’ explanation for AMZN’s $325 billion of bottled air is actually proof positive that the casino has become unhinged. For more than two decades, Amazon has been promoted as the monster of the E-commerce midway, which it surely is.

But this year’s $180 billion roll of the dice has absolutely nothing to do with its capacity for same day delivery of healthy treats for your pooch. This most recent rip was all about the purportedly “scorching” performance of its AWS division——-that is, Amazon’s totally unrelated business as a vendor of cloud computing services.

Indeed, CNBC recently gave air time to one of the most rabid analyst on the block, and this particular stock peddler from UBS left nothing to the imagination. Never mind whether anything emanating from that serial swindler and confessed criminal organization can be taken seriously, here’s what the man said.

AWS is technology’s second coming and is worth $110 billion. We know that because AMZN has recently been thoughtful enough to break out its financials.

They show AWS had sales of $2.1 billion in the September quarter and revenues of $7 billion on an LTM basis. So that puts its cloud computing business’ value at 16X sales. No sweat!

Moreover, this means that the balance of the company—–that is, its core E-commerce business—– is “only” valued at an apparently much more reasonable $215 billion. And by golly, said the UBS man, that’s just 1.4X sales. So what’s not to like?

Well, hold it right there. Someone forgot to do the math in all the excitement about AWS. Yes, the company’s release did show that AWS posted $1.33 billion of operating income or about 20% of sales in the during the LTM period.

But consolidated operating income during the quarter was only $1.72 billion, meaning that by the lights of subtraction, Jeff Bezos’ great empire of E-commerce earned the microscopic sum of  $390 million in operating income during its most recent year.

By the same magic of subtraction we can see that AMZN’s E-commerce business generated $94 billion of sales. This means that its operating margin was exactly 40 basis points.

That’s right—–after 25 years of crushing it on the E-commerce front, Amazon’s core business operating margin is truly a rounding error.

And might we also ask why you would value at $215 billion the profitless sales of an E-commerce monster that just can’t stop spending every dime it takes-in on distribution centers, package handlers, hired delivery trucks and drone prototypes; and now, apparently, same hour delivery service by out-of-work actors and bank tellers who happen to own a Vespa!

Stated differently, AMZN’s $180 billion market cap gain in 2015 was not actually a re-rating; it was a bait-and-switch operation by the high-rollers in the casino.

Amazon is not the inventor and first-mover of E-commerce, after all. Instead, it’s now suddenly held to be the monster of the midway in the totally unrelated business of cloud computing services.

By the lights of the UBS man and Wall Street’s amen chorus, AWS is valued at 16X sales now. But it will surely crush any competitor in the stretch ahead, and thereby grow its way into that outsized valuation.

Except don’t tell Google, Microsoft, Oracle or several others about the beanstalk thing. Indeed, the current nattering about AWS was truly ridiculous. Why would anyone endowed with a modicum of sanity believe that these tech powerhouses are about to cede the cloud to Amazon merely because it comes first in the alphabet?

There is no other real reason for thinking so. Between them, the big three mentioned above have about $220 billion of cash and deep franchises in the world of computing and the internet.

Sure, when technology moved from owned boxes, corporate computer centers and software licenses to a rent-a-server model,  Amazon got out of the gate first because it had no installed base of old technology to protect.

But there are no barriers to entry, no killer patents, no material brand equity, no irreproducible sales and service network etc. that will permit Amazon to ring-fence the cloud. So there will be viscous competition and prices will fall at a rate which will make Moore’s law look tepid.

Indeed, Larry Ellison has recently promised to cut prices by 90%, and he has rarely failed to follow through on exactly that kind of competitive rampage.

Likewise, it would appear that the cloud is destined to be the future home of Microsoft’s entire franchise. Surely it is probable that AMZN’s Seattle neighbor can make the transition from selling computer software to renting cloud services.

In short, AMZN has disclosed almost nothing about AWS’s detailed business model, its fixed and variable cost structure or the investment requirements of its rentable clouds and the rates of return on the massive amounts of capital employed.

Only the Wall Street boys, girls and robo-traders betting on red could come up with $110 billion valuation of a nascent business that is positioned in the cross-fire of the Big Tech battlefield.

So Amazon’s total $325 billion valuation is just plain irrational exuberance. It is also surely the short of a lifetime.

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Deathrips's picture

There are NO markets in digital land.

 

RIPS

DeadFred's picture

If you short this stock you'd better have lots of margin cash on the side. The real value isn't any more than $300 and maybe MUCH lower but you can get squeezed to death if you max your margin. Beware

NoPension's picture

Just saw the new movie " The Big Short" .

OMG!

Mr Pink's picture

Watched it last night. The best movie I've seen in a long time. 

stacking12321's picture

you only went to see the stripper showing off her titties, admit it!

Midas's picture

Bill Bonner referred to AMZN as the "river of no returns."  I am reluctant to ever short any of the FANG stocks.  There are millions of millenials who would lay down their lives for these demi-gods...

JRobby's picture

What the insiders seem to know is that Amazon will be offering military weapons and drugs of all types for sale online shortly.

 

 

KnuckleDragger-X's picture

Yep, shorting without the big players is a losing game. Unfortunately when the big names start shorting you'll still be fucked.......

lazysunday's picture

Exactly this is the new hedge fund hotel stock - good luck on keeping your shorts alive. 

jcaz's picture

LOL-  Fred,  that's classic!  You sound like my prospectus!  I remember you guys during the last couple of bubbles-  never thought they would ever lose a dime long,  still talking their Cisco book to this day-  "It's gonna get hot any day now......"

R.R.Raskolnikov's picture

At a christmas party I have been told that the Nasdaq goes to 6000 this year. 2016 and 6000, see the relationship? Both 6s. Sell the house and buy the stock.

garypaul's picture

"Why would anyone endowed with a modicum of sanity believe that these tech powerhouses are about to cede the cloud to Amazon merely because it comes first in the alphabet?"

Actually, Alphabet comes first in the alphabet.

garypaul's picture

LOL, joking aside, I do have a more serious criticism of this article. Take a look at this:

"Likewise, it would appear that the cloud is destined to be the future home of Microsoft’s entire franchise. Surely it is probable that AMZN’s Seattle neighbor can make the transition from selling computer software to renting cloud services."

Surely? Just like Kodak transitioned from photographic paper into digital photography?

tarsubil's picture

You have a point but there's Google, Apple, and even Dell among others. Microsoft is such a mess it probably will be like their cellphone, takes a little bit of market share but not anywhere near a leader.

lazysunday's picture

Actually MS cloud business is booming as well, and they are about 4 times the absoulte size. 

pitz's picture

Cloud becomes a lot less interesting if the vendors have to actually achieve a normal rate of return on it and charge accordingly. 

SolidSnake961's picture

being short anything is no longer viable in this market, the market will stay irrational longer than you will stay liquid.....amazon will continue to climb and the day it crashes will be the day after you cover your short

r3ct1f13r's picture

Aside from shorting the dollar with PM's, shorting is suicide, currently.

Four chan's picture

re; final spasms

we have not yet begun to spasm.

Keyser's picture

Hmm, not sure about that Snake... I've been short WTI since it was at $100 and it's not finished going down yet... 

R.R.Raskolnikov's picture

When FANG goes down the rest goes down. (Ofcourse, alot is already down). The people who are buying are driven by hope and greed. Amazing how emotion drove the Christmas rally. Really, no risk reward analysis. I mean buying Apple stock at around 105 is going to become 200 in the near future... I don't see why people are buying.

NoWayJose's picture

I cannot argue Amazon is overvalued - but they are one of the 800 pound gorillas in on line shopping. If all they did was sell Amazon products then I would say 'dead end'. But they also sell many products for other smaller retailers. Like the small business or entrepreneur job creators, this is a sign of vitality for Amazon. They also stock and process many of these small company products, and do have an effective order fulfillment system.

Will they ever generate profits? Not if Bezos keeps dabbling in Kindles, Drones, 1 hour delivery, etc. This 'close to the customer' stuff is expensive and must be staffed year-round - even when shipments slow. It puts Amazon expenses closer to big box retailers - rather than relying on the massive warehouse/shipping systems that are at Amazon's core.

DeadFred's picture

The wife ordered something on AMZN the other day and the delivery doorbell rang two hours later. Wow. This is a good company for as long as the grid is up and no 1000 pound gorillas comes on scene to hose the 800 pound version... BUT all that possible future valuation is already priced in so why would you own this stock? Keep watch on Amazon and Facebook because the market won't tank while they're still at the highs. They make good canaries for the Ponzi coal mine.

Escrava Isaura's picture

 

 

I ordered in the morning before going to work and when I got home Amazon had delivered it already. I thought it was impossible. I must had ordered the day before. So, when I opened my outlook—emails—the order and the delivery confirmation were at the same date.

 

How was that possible?  

 

pitz's picture

If the item is in one of their warehouses close enough to you, entirely possible/plausible. 

assistedliving's picture

How was that possible?  

Easy

AMZN knows what you're going to buy before you do

SilverDOG's picture

I can't wait, what am I getting !

Mr. Schmilkies's picture

A baby's arm holding an apple. Or a monza, a new Monza!

besnook's picture

you must be young. delivery services for immediate delivery to a customer has been around forever but fell out of favor as local small businesses folded and the big box model flourished  and the delivery services were relegated to business to business local delivery.

this is not a new concept but it fits nicely with the local warehouse model amzn uses. since they have cut out the big box store format a local delivery service becomes efficient.

BSHJ's picture

The auto-parts business has run like that forever.  Particularly in larger cities, parts (few true repair parts) are not stocked at the retail outlet but at a larger regional warehouse.  All the retail outlets order as needed and deliveries are usually within a few hours (by a eye-candy type delivery person). 

sun tzu's picture

Most of the stuff on amazon is now 10-20% cheaper on ebay and walmart. Make sure you shop around before ordering. I didn't buy anything from amazon last year because it was all more expensive.

As for FaceFuck, everyone I ask inder the age of 30 has stopped using it. They still have an account or five, but they log in once or twice a week now. They use snapchat, tumblr and the other unicorn crap apps. 

R.R.Raskolnikov's picture

My environement consists mostly of millenials. Me, I don't fucking use Facebook. Get a hoby, read a book, visit a musuem. In retropective, considering that the cummulative time spend posting and liking messagess for people I give zero, is nuts. The world has become b0nkers. Especially, if taking into account that that company has an enterprice value of around $300bil. That is more than some countries their annual-GDP. Furthermore, a P/E rate of more than 100. I see one big unicorn...

i_call_you_my_base's picture

Agree with you. They may be overvalued, but it's not a bad business. People tend to rag on companies that are overvalued even though they have a reasonable and sustainable model. It's much better than the online comapnies that are strictly ad model. I wouldn't buy Amazon at current prices, but it doesn't mean I wouldn't buy them at any price. I wouldn't buy twitter or facebook at any price.

sun tzu's picture

Sustainable model of zero income? They should apply for a 501(c)

besnook's picture

that is my bet of the year. 2016 will be the year of the amazon short pants.

the tell for me was the reported slower increase in internet sales from 15-20% to 10-15%. somehow everyone thinks amzn is immune from this slowing growth.

IT IS RETAIL! who cares if it is internet retail. it is still retail and dserves a pe of 12 with a little bump for growth.

J Pancreas's picture

Wal-Mart's profit in one quarter is greater than Amazons year end combined. I cant wait to see the Bezos fanboys go down in flames.

Vendetta's picture

"Bezos fanboys go down in flames"   -> "Bozos fanboys go down in flames"   there, fixed it.

nmewn's picture

Its an insanely ridiculous valuation.

I was just about to get out my truck at the office and the nuuuz was on yapping about how well Amazon did in Christmas sales in percentile terms (ya know, like if they had one customer last year and this year they had two they doubled!...lol) and the punchline was...they had signed up 500 gazzilion premium members for the Christmas shopping season.

I almost fell down laughing knowing what most "safe zone" listeners don't know, with the offer of Faaarrreee! shipping if you sign up for this years on-line shopping orgy comes next year...when they tag your stupid ass automatically for a hundred bucks for...renewal.

And the kiddies will no doubt scream for Congress to do something about this "theft" in 2017 as well, "Halp us .gov sugar daddy, halp us!"

(Sigh) 

#Sheeple&StawkInvestorsAlwaysGetFleeced

Bear's picture

AMZN's first quarter may see Xmas buldge.

JustObserving's picture

With HFT computers and sufficient money, you can manipulate the price of every stock, bond or commodity to whatever level you want.

"We are an empire now and when we act, we create our own reality."

It is financial suicide to short corrupt, manipulated markets.

Here is irrefutable mathematical proof that gold and silver are manipulated lower

EXCLUSIVE: The Smoking Gun Proving Silver & Gold Manipulation

http://www.peakprosperity.com/blog/94852/exclusive-smoking-gun-proving-s...

NotApplicable's picture

Stockman made the mistake of talking markets in a ZIRP/NIRP world, making him correct on a number of currently moot points.

OpenThePodBayDoorHAL's picture

People forget that it's not just about the numerator, it's also about the denominator. So Amazon share price *per dollar* really reflects the decline in the value of the denominator, in this case relative to the value of the AMZN enterprise. The fact that other "numerator/denominator" comparisons (like ZAR/USD for example) are also way out of whack is throwing people off. We are well and truly through the looking glass, especially with QE4 and helicopter money on its way

Bear's picture

You are right the nominal valuations of the Zimbabwe Stocks went up, up, up as they currency went down, down, down 

SilverDOG's picture

Like fingernails on the chalkboard.

Babaloo's picture

If I had a dollar for everybody who was carried out in a body bag after shorting AMZN, I wouldn't have to short it.

SilverDOG's picture

I know, like why?

There were 496 short treasures right there !

css1971's picture

Amazon is investing in an enormous amount of hardware to run these clouds. The instant the economy turns down, it's going to have to be idled. Sitting depreciating as new hardware makes it obsolete, every 18 months.

Anopheles's picture

Most of Amazon's cloud infrastructure is not depend on a robust economy.   Internet usage continues to expand.  Smartphones, netflix and other web services are needing more and more bandwidth.  If anything, in a economic downturn it will expand, as people have less "important" things to do and turn more to entertainment, which today is internet based. 

Remember that for every byte that is transported along the internet, it originates (or ends) at a server. 

pitz's picture

Literally every machine on the Internet is, in some form or another, a 'server' though.