Amazon Stock: Has It Produced The Most Alpha In Big Tech?

A long-term investment in Amazon stock has historically produced outsized returns. But has AMZN been the best Big Tech player at producing alpha? The Amazon Maven faces off six mega-cap stocks.
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A few days ago, the Amazon Maven explained how a mere $100 monthly investment in Amazon stock  (AMZN) - Get Report since the company’s 1997 IPO would have led to riches: $2.7 million today. It is hard to imagine a methodical, long-term investment having performed as well as this one.

But has AMZN shares created the most alpha within the mega-cap tech universe? Could investors have done much better by betting on names like Apple  (AAPL) - Get Report or Microsoft  (MSFT) - Get Report instead?

Figure 1: Amazon's HQ in Seattle, WA.

Figure 1: Amazon's HQ in Seattle, WA.

What is alpha?

First, it helps to look closer at the concept of alpha. Generally, alpha is thought to be the returns that an investor can earn in excess of a benchmark. In other words: how much has a stock or portfolio risen relative to the S&P 500 or the Nasdaq? Investopedia summarizes as follows:

Alpha (α) is a term used in investing to describe an investment strategy's ability to beat the market, or its ‘edge’. Alpha is also referred to as ‘excess return’ or ‘abnormal rate of return’.

To me, this is a good start. But alpha should also consider one crucial factor: risk.

Beating the S&P 500 might simply mean higher sensitivity to market forces (i.e. beta). So, the better question is: how much return can a stock produce relative to risk. I believe that this is a more complete view of alpha.

Amazon stock vs. the rest

Considering absolute returns only, Amazon stock ranks remarkably high within Big Tech for historical share price performance. The chart below shows that, over the past 10 years, AMZN has only lagged Tesla (TSLA) in annualized gains.

Figure 2: Big tech annualized return, past 10 years.

Figure 2: Big tech annualized return, past 10 years.

Now, let me introduce risk to the equation. Risk is often defined (maybe too simplistically) as volatility. The more a stock rises and falls from minute to minute, or day to day, or week to week, the riskier it is.

So, one way to assess a stock’s returns relative to risk, thus giving us a better idea of its alpha potential, is to divide annualized returns by annualized volatility. By this methodology, Amazon stock loses its silver medal to Microsoft.

Figure 3: Big tech sharpe, past 10 years.

Figure 3: Big tech sharpe, past 10 years.

One takeaway here is that, over the past decade, Amazon has achieved higher returns than any other FAAMG stock, but not without exposing investors to more volatility. If history repeats, investors should expect high returns to come alongside relatively sharper ups and downs as well.

Another way to think about risk, one that I have favored recently, is to think about sizable losses. A good question to ask would be: how much has a stock produced in average annual returns relative to its worst trailing 12-month (TTM) performance?

Using this methodology, not only does Amazon stock lose its silver medal, but it also drops out of the podium altogether. See chart below, and notice that Facebook has also performed better than Amazon in the past ten years in loss-adjusted terms.

Figure 4: Ratio: Annualized return vs. Worst TTM return.

Figure 4: Ratio: Annualized return vs. Worst TTM return.

Amazon, in fact, has one of the worst track records within Big Tech when it comes to sharp losses. By November 2008, AMZN had seen 57% of its value evaporate over the previous year. Only Alphabet, around the same time, performed any worse than this.

The key takeaways for investors

Having said the above, I think that Amazon investors can learn a few lessons from this historical price action analysis:

  • Amazon has been a high-performing name, both since the IPO and over the past decade. In absolute terms, it is hard to find many stocks that have consistently delivered outsized returns.
  • Once risk is introduced to the discussion, Amazon stock’s performance goes from “outstanding” to a less exhilarating “solid”. Peers like Tesla, Microsoft and even Facebook seem to have been better alpha producers. In the 10 years that preceded the pandemic, in fact, Amazon’s volatility-adjusted returns were about the same as the S&P 500’s.
  • AMZN investors should understand that the stock could continue to produce outsized gains, but also endure higher volatility and sharper losses, as it has in the last decade or more.
  • As always, past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Use history as a rough guide to set expectations, but understand that share price behavior can be quite different going forward.

Twitter speaks

Pop quiz: relative to volatility (that is, in risk-adjusted terms), which of the following mega-cap tech stock has delivered the best returns in the past 10 year? Leave your vote below and follow The Amazon Maven on Twitter!

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(Disclaimers: this is not investment advice. The author may be long one or more stocks mentioned in this report. Also, the article may contain affiliate links. These partnerships do not influence editorial content. Thanks for supporting The Amazon Maven)