NEW YORK (TheStreet) –– Amazon (AMZN - Get Report) shares may see significant pain over the short term, but the long-term outlook for the Seattle-based online retailer remains positive, making this a buying opportunity for patient investors.
Amazon's key metric, according to CFO Tom Szkutak, is maximizing free cash flow, which allows the company to invest in future operations.
"Our goal is to maximize free cash flow over the long term," Szkutak said during Thursday's earnings conference call. "We don't focus on individual margins, but we do focus on the inputs that are going to help drive free cash flow and operating income."
Amazon's shares are down 7% Friday, off 27% for the year to date.
By maximizing free cash flow, Amazon can focus on investments to expand revenue as well as to keep and attract new customers, including expanding into areas such as hardware, furthering Amazon Web Services' lead, and ramping up the value of Amazon Prime, which in addition to two-day shipping offers video content. The idea behind this is once the investment period is over, Amazon can return to higher operating margins levels. For the third quarter, operating margins were 0.2%.
Amazon stated operating cash flow increased 15% year over year to $5.71 billion for the trailing 12 months, and free cash flow nearly tripled to $1.08 billion for the trailing 12 months, including the purchase of its new Seattle headquarters for $1.4 billion.
Amazon posted third-quarter results that fell short of Wall Street estimates due to a revenue miss. For the quarter ending Sept. 30, Amazon lost 95 cents a share on $20.58 billion in revenue. Analysts were expecting a loss of 74 cents a share on $20.84 billion.
Guidance for the all-important holiday quarter is weak at first blush, with the company expecting sales to be between $27.3 billion and $30.3 billion, below the $30.86 billion forecasted by Thomson Reuters estimates. It also expects to post a wide range of operating results next quarter, between a loss of $570 million and a gain of $430 million, including $470 million in stock based compensation.
Jeffrey P. Bezos-led Amazon has been chided before for making too many investments in too many projects, including the Amazon Fire Phone, which has been a short-term disaster with the company taking a $170 million writedown on it. Amazon also has $83 million worth of unsold inventory sitting on its books.
Though Amazon has been incredibly aggressive about expanding its business in hardware as well as software (Amazon Prime Music, expanded video content on Amazon Prime and other initiatives), comments made by Szkutak on the call seem to suggest the company's outlook may be tweaked to focus more on using capital wisely as opposed to using capital for capital's sake.
"We certainly will look at making sure that we're using our capital wisely so that over time we get good returns on invested capital and we certainly have been in several years now of what I would call an investment mode and because of the opportunities that we had in front of us," he said.
Despite the third-quarter results and fourth-quarter outlook shortfall -- a negative foreign currency headwind hurt the topline forecast by nearly 250 basis points -- there were bright spots, according to Canccord Genuity analyst Michael Graham. He rates Amazon a hold and lowered his price target to $310 following the results. Graham noted the company's third-party (3P) business, in which sellers list their products on Amazon, continues to see strong growth, now accounting for 42% of units sold. Amazon Web Services (AWS) continues to see strong growth, at over 90%.Though Amazon has never been run for 90-day increments and the short-term demands of Wall Street, to say it does not care about investors, despite having made less than $2 billion in profit in the past 20 years is false. (For comparison's sake, Apple ( AAPL - Get Report) most recently had a quarter net profit of $8.5 billion.)
Investor confidence matters to Amazon not because investors are funding 'losses' (they aren't) but because staff are mostly paid in stock— Benedict Evans (@BenedictEvans) October 23, 2014
Amazon is still likely to remain in investment mode for some time to come, according to JMP Securities analyst Ronald Josey, with the major areas being "fulfillment and sortation centers, devices, content, international expansion, and AWS." Given the constraints the company saw in its Media business -- Amazon noted Media growth slowed to 4% year over year, citing consumers renting textbooks more than buying -- the content strategy may shift a bit, allowing it to focus on higher return on investment (ROI) initiatives.Investors may not begin asking for Bezos' head following a 10-year return of more than 700%, compared to a 133% gain in the Nasdaq. However, some financial discipline may be forthcoming, showing that Bezos' long-term plan has an endgame that will demonstrate Amazon's true earnings power, getting back to the roughly 8% operating margins seen as recently as 2008.
--Written by Chris Ciaccia in New York
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