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What Is Wrong With eBay?

Stocks in this article: EBAY MSFT AMZN

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- What can be wrong with eBay (EBAY), a company whose stock has increased more than five-fold over the last five years?

Plenty, according to Carl Icahn. 

Icahn doesn't like how Skype was spun out and then drew a bigger bid from Microsoft (MSFT). He doesn't like that the eBay board refuses to spin off PayPal, eBay's payments service. Icahn looks at a one-year gain for the stock of 7.2%, against a 60% gain for the Nasdaq as a whole, and goes "meh."

But perhaps Icahn should be more worried about eBay's slowing growth and relatively meager capital spending.

While Chinese Internet company Alibaba has used its base in e-commerce to build an estimated $100 billion in equity value over the last decade, eBay's growth has lagged. The company has missed the digital-goods opportunity and revenue growth has been slowing steadily since 2010.

Margins are healthy, with almost 18% of revenue showing up as net income in 2013, but that may be the biggest danger signal of all.

The fact is that e-commerce is growing rapidly, and it's a business that requires enormous capital investment. For eBay, capital spending was a relatively small $1.25 billion in 2013 and $1.26 billion in 2012. Overall revenue was $16.1 billion last year and $14 billion in 2012. 

An eBay spokesman pointed out that its $1.25 billion in capital expenditures last year represented 8% of revenue, while Amazon's $3.44 billion represented just 5% of revenue.

The company hasn't been a big player in Silicon Valley's acquisition spree, either.

Its biggest acquisition for 2013 was Braintree, a payment processor bought as a bolt-on to Paypal, for $800 million. The company also bought Decide, a price-forecasting company, and then shut it down. It bought Shutl, an English courier service, but that was also a relatively small deal.

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