R&D: Amazon’s Dirty Little Secret Weapon

 

Why doesn’t Amazon produce more earnings given its dominance?

Amazon just reported earnings and, as was the case in 2017 and 2016, emphasized that 2019 will be an investment year, so the strong operating margin expansion of 2018 would be capped in 2019. This, of course, is great fodder for bears on the stock as Amazon gave sceptics renewed opportunity to point out that it is a company that has a flawed business model and would find it difficult to ever earn a reasonable return on revenue.

In contrast, I believe that Amazon continues to transform itself into a potential strong profit performer. For example, taking the longer perspective, Amazon’s gross margins are now over 40% up from 27.2% five years ago (2013). So why doesn’t Amazon deliver higher operating margin than the slightly over 6% it reported in 2018? Amazon’s dirty little secret is that it continues to invest heavily in creating future dominance through R&D. Had it spent a similar amount in R&D to its long time competitor, Walmart, EBITDA would have nearly tripled… to over 17% of revenue! I must confess that in the past I haven’t paid enough attention to how much Amazon spends on R&D. As a result, I was surprised that Apple and Microsoft trailed it in voice recognition technology and that Amazon could lead IBM and Microsoft in cloud technology. The reason this occurred is not a surprising one: Amazon outspends Apple, Microsoft and IBM in R&D.

In fact, Amazon now outspends every company in the world (see Table 1) and have been dedicating a larger portion of available dollars to R&D (as measured by the % of gross margin dollars spent on R&D) than any other large technology company, except Qualcomm, for more than 10 years. Even though Amazon had less than 50% of Apple’s revenue and less than 1/3 of its gross margin dollars 5 years ago (2013) Amazon spent nearly 50% more than Apple on R&D that year… by 2018 the gap had increased to close to 100% more.

Table 1: Top 10 (and a few more) U.S. R&D Spenders in 2018 ($Bn)

Sources: market watch, analyst reports, annual filings

Note 1: Ford and GM may be in the top 10 but so far have not reported R&D in 2018. If they report it at year end the table could change. Walmart does not report R&D and their spend is generally unavailable, but I found a reference that said they expected to spend $1.1M in 2017.

Note 2: A 2018 global list would include auto makers VW and Toyota (with R&D of $15.8B and about 10.0B), drug company Roche (&10.8B) and tech company Samsung at $15.3B in place of the lowest 4 in Table 1.

The Innovators Financial Dilemma: Increasing Future Prospects can lower Current Earnings

When I was on Wall Street covering Microsoft (and others) Bill Gates would often point out that the company was going to make large investments the following year so they could stay ahead of competition. He said he was less concerned with what that meant for earnings. That investment helped drive Microsoft to dominance by the late 1990s. Companies are often confronted with the dilemma of whether to increase spending to drive future growth or to maximize current earnings. I believe that investment in R&D, when effective, is correlated to future success.

It is interesting to see how leaders in R&D spending have transitioned over the past 10 years. In 2008 the global leaders in R&D spending included 5 pharma companies, 3 auto makers and only 2 tech companies (Nokia and Microsoft which subsequently merged). In 2018, 6 of the top 7 spenders (Samsung plus the 5 shown in Table 1) were technology companies.

Table 2 – 2008 global R&D leaders ($Bn)

Note: *Facebook data from 2009, first available financials from S-1 filing

It’s hard to change without tanking one’s stock

When a company has a business model that allocates 1% of gross margin dollars to R&D, it is not easy to turn on the dime. If Walmart had decided to invest half as much as Amazon in R&D in 2018, its earnings would have decreased by 80% – 90% and its stock would have depreciated substantially. So, instead it began a buying binge several years ago to try to close the technology gap through acquisitions (which has a much smaller impact on operating margins). It remains to be seen if this strategy will succeed going forward but in the past 5 years Walmart revenue (including acquisitions) increased only 5% while Amazon’s was up 130% in the same period (also including acquisitions).

Whatever Happened to IBM?

When I was growing up, I thought of IBM as the king of tech. In the early 1990s it still seemed to rule the roost. The biggest fear for Microsoft was that IBM could overwhelm it, yet now it appears to be an also ran in technology. From 2014 to 2018, a heyday era for tech companies, its revenue shrank from $93 billion in 2014 to $80 billion in 2018. I can’t tell how much of the problem stems from under investing in R&D versus poor execution, but for the past 5 years it has spent an average of about 13% of GM on R&D, while the 6 tech companies in Table 1 have averaged about 24% of GM dollars with Apple the only one under 20%.

 

Soundbytes

Soundbyte I: Tesla

  • I recently had a long dialogue with a very smart fund manager and was struck by what I believe to be misinformation he had read regarding Tesla. There were 3 major points that he had heard:
    • The quality of Tesla cars was shoddy
    • Tesla could not maintain reasonable margins as it began producing lower priced Model 3s
    • The upcoming influx of electric cars from companies like Porsche, Jaguar and Audi would take substantial market share away from Tesla

I decided to do a bit of research to determine how valid each of these issues might be.

  • Tesla Quality: I found it hard to believe that the majority of Tesla owners thought the car was of poor quality since every one of the 15 or so people I knew who had bought one had already bought another or were planning to for their next car. So, I found a report on customer satisfaction from Consumer Reports, and I was not surprised to find that Tesla was the number 1 ranked car by customer satisfaction.
  • Tesla margins: this is much harder to predict. Since Tesla is relatively young as a manufacturer it has had numerous issues with production. Yet it is probably ahead of many others when it comes to automating its facilities. This tends to cause gross margins to be lower while volume ramps and higher subsequently. The combination of that, plus moving up the learning curve, should mean that Tesla lowers the cost of producing its products. However, Tesla charges more for cars with higher capacity for distance, but as I understand it uses software to limit battery capacity for lower priced cars. This would mean that a portion of the difference between a lower priced Model 3 and a higher priced one (the battery capacity) would be minimal change in cost, putting pressure on margins. The question becomes whether Tesla’s improving cost efficiencies offset the average price decline of a Model 3 as Tesla begins fulfilling demand for lower priced versions.
  • March 1 Update: After this post was complete (Thursday February 28) the company announced it was closing many showrooms to reduce costs. Then late today (Friday) announced that the $35,000 version of the model 3 is now available. So, we shall soon see the impact. I believe that if Tesla has increased capacity there will be very strong sales. It also likely will experience lower gross margin percentages as it climbs the learning curve and ramps production.
  • Will the influx of electric cars from others impact Tesla market share?

 

  1. Porsche is an electric sports car starting at $90K – at that price point it is competitive with model S not model 3. In competing with the S it comes down to whether one prefers a sports car to a sedan. I have owned a Porsche in the past and would only consider it if I wanted a sports car with limited seating capacity (but very cool). I loved my Porsche but decided to switch to sedans going forward. Since then I’ve owned only sedans for the past 10+ years. It also appears that early production is almost a year away, so it is unlikely to be competitive for 2019.
  2. Audi is at price points that do compete with the Model 3 and expects to start delivering cars in March. However, I think that is mainly in Europe where Tesla is an emerging brand so it might not impact them at all. When I look at the Audi models I don’t think they will appeal to Tesla buyers as they are very old-line designs (I would call them ugly). The range of the cars on a charge is not yet official but seems likely to be much lower than Tesla which has a big lead in battery technology.
  3. The Jaguar competes with the Tesla Model X but while cheaper, appears a weak competitor.

 

I don’t want to dismiss the fact that traditional players will be introducing a large number of electronic vehicles. The question really is whether the market size for electric cars is a fixed portion of all cars or whether it will become a much larger part of the entire market over time. I would compare this to fears that analysts had when Lotus and Wordperfect created Windows versions. They felt that Microsoft would lose share of windows spreadsheets and word processors. I agreed but pointed out that Windows was 10% of the entire market for spreadsheets, so having a 90% share gave Microsoft 9% of the overall spreadsheet market. I also predicted Microsoft would have over a 45% share when Windows was 100% of the market. So, while this would decrease Microsoft’s share of Windows spreadsheets, it would grow its total share of the market by 5X Of course we all were proven wrong as Microsoft eventually reached over 90% of the entire market.

For Tesla, the question becomes whether these rivals are helping accelerate the share electric cars will have of the overall market, rather than eroding Tesla volumes. I’m thinking that it’s the former, and that Tesla will have a great volume year in 2019 and that its biggest competitive issue will be whether the Model 3 is so strong that it will get people to buy it over the Model S. Of course, I could be wrong, but believe the odds favor Tesla in 2019, especially the first half of the year where the competitors are not that strong.

Soundbyte II: The NYC / Amazon Deal Collapses

I never cease to be amazed at how little regard some Politicians have for facts. I should likely not have been surprised by the furor created over Amazon locating a major facility in New York City. I thought the $44 billion or more in benefits to the City and State and massive job creation were such a win that no one would contest it. Instead, the dialog centered around the $ 3 billion in tax benefits to Amazon. All but 1/6 of the benefits (which was cash from the state) were based on existing laws and amounted to a reduction of future taxes rather than upfront cash. What a loss for the City.

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