“Profitless” Amazon Myth Lives On Thanks To Lazy Financial Media

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.

AMZN-CFO-Margins

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.

Sears Holdings Third Party Tenant Leased Space Surpasses One Million Square Feet, Capital Needs Remain Overwhelming

As has been well documented, one of the strategies being used by Sears Holdings (SHLD) to try and stop the financial bleeding at the company is to lease out space to third party tenants. Since many of its stores are too large given the company’s ever-shrinking customer base, Sears is splitting up some of its stores (many of which are owned outright, not leased) into multiple units in order to reduce its own retail footprint and boost revenue by collecting rent from third party tenants.

For example, here is a picture of Sears’ Oakbrook Center store in the suburbs of Chicago:

IMG_20140507_105321004_HDR

At first glance it might look like any other outdoor mall, but the Pottery Barn stores are actually part of the Sears building (the Sears entrance is around the corner by the columns). Sears likely collects about $500,000 in rent from Pottery Barn annually for these subdivided spaces.

Former Kmart stores are also being leased out to retailers who can accommodate larger box sizes. Home decor chain Garden Ridge, which is in the process of rebranding their 70+ stores with the “At Home” moniker, is actually Sears’ largest third party tenant currently (excluding Lands End, which leases space inside existing Sears stores and until recently was owned by Sears), occupying five closed Kmart stores. Those deals have put Sears over the 1 million square foot mark for third party retail leases. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that leasing 1 million square feet, which took the company about 2 years of serious effort to reach (Seritage Realty Trust, Sears’ in-house leasing operation, was formed in 2012), is just a rounding error for this $30 billion per year company. In order for third party rental income to reach just 1% of Sears’ annual revenue, the company would have to rent out about 20 million square feet of space, which could easily take 5-10 years.

I estimate that between now and the end of 2016, Sears needs to come up with $2.7 billion in cash just to cover its pension obligations, interest on its outstanding debt, and capital expenditures for their current store base. Where will this money come from? That’s the problem for the stock right now, and why I see more short-term pain ahead for Sears Holdings shareholders. Even if we were to assume that Sears’ retail stores breakeven on an operating cash basis (which they are not doing right now, hence why this capital is not going to come from operating profit), the company still needs to come up with several billion dollars.

Management has announced they are exploring monetization options for both Sears Auto Centers and its ~50% stake in Sears Canada, but even if both were sold they are unlikely to fetch more than $1.2 billion in a very optimistic scenario. That leaves another $1.5 billion to find somewhere. Sears Holdings currently has about $600 million of cash in the bank, so further asset sales or more debt will be required simply to get the company funded for the next two and a half years. After all of that cash goes out the door, the asset base left for shareholders will be materially smaller than it is today.

This is why I am waiting on the sidelines, despite the clear value in Sears’ vast real estate portfolio. As long as the company continues to burn through cash operationally, more and more assets will need to be sold simply to cover capital needs. Even if they continue to lease out space to other retailers, it simply is not enough to help financially in any meaningful way. By waiting things out, but continuing to monitor the situation closely, I am hoping that over the next couple of years, more and more assets are shed out of necessity, and I might have an opportunity to buy the stock at a lower price, and with more of the assets concentrated in the owned real estate (the debt holders and the pensioners can have Sears Canada and Sears Auto Centers — they’re not good businesses). If that happens, there might be a time down the road when the price investors have to pay, relative to the assets and liabilities on the books, represent an attractive investment opportunity. Since I don’t see things getting better in the short term, I think it’s too early to invest in Sears Holdings for the real estate.

Full Disclosure: Long Sears Holdings bonds at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time