Sooner or Later Well Learn How Smart Jeff Bezos Really Is

Shareholders are getting increasingly impatient with Amazon and its casual attitude toward profits. The company just delivered a disappointing earnings report that surprised the Street -- even though Amazon warned in its last report that the third quarter would be grim.

The numbers, which we will get to in a moment, are almost beside the point. There are larger issues at stake as the shareholder disgruntlement against Amazon grows.

As its losses mount, will Amazon be forced to stop making myriad — and expensive — investments in other companies and technologies and settle down to business, namely its e-commerce empire?

Or will shareholders be proved wrong about their growing ire over Amazon's investment spree?

Or, to put it in its most stark terms: will Jeff Bezos' vision for the company, no matter how seemingly schizophrenic right now, be proved correct in the end?

Patiently Waiting for Profits

To be fair, Wall Street has been remarkable patient with Bezos, shrugging off quarter after quarter of disappointing earnings.

But its disgruntlement is clearly growing, as evidenced by the stock's 12.89 percent after-hours plunge and by a similar drop after the equally dismal second quarter earnings.

Amazon reported a net loss of $437 million in the third quarter, or 95 cents per diluted share, compared with a net loss of $41 million, or nine cents per diluted share, in the third quarter 2013. Analysts polled by Yahoo expected a loss of 74 cents a share.

Earlier this year for its second quarter, Amazon reported a net loss of $126 million, or 27 cents per share — more than double what analysts had been expecting — compared to a net loss of $7 million, or two cents a share, in the same quarter in 2013.

Indeed these losses are not only bad on their face value but also serve to highlight that Amazon has not been profitable in some time.

Questionable Bets

The numerous investments the company has been making are the reason behind the losses — or so the conventional wisdom on the Street and among many analysts goes. But this is hardly new behavior on Amazon's part. Bezos has consistently said the company needs to invest in technologies with an eye on the long-term if it wishes to stay competitive.

Also, many of his bets have paid off handsomely, such as Amazon's introduction of the e-reader several years ago. Like Apple's iPad, it was a market maker for this device type and has held its own against Apple's now ubiquitous tablet.

Unfortunately, more recent investments — such as the Fire Phone — have clearly been flops. In the third quarter earnings report, Amazon said it posted a $170 million loss related to the device and had $83 million worth of unsold inventory.

To its credit, Amazon appeared to realize it had a dud on its hands: soon after its July launch it cut the price of the device to 99 cents.

The E-Commerce Minority

After such compelling evidence, it is easy to understand the growing pressure on Bezos and the company to stick to what works.

After all, e-commerce in the US grew 16.5 percent in 2013 to reach $264.3 billion, according to eMarketer, and is expected to increase another 15.7 percent in 2014 to reach $305.7 billion.

During the 2014 holiday season, eMarketer estimates that e-commerce will account for $72.41 billion in the US.

Here's the rub though: 'what works' right now — that is, e-commerce — may not be enough to drive margins for Amazon in the long run. Instead it could find itself thriving or at least surviving largely due to these speculative investments the company is making right now.

Those e-commerce figures from eMarketer? The other side of their story is that e-commerce sales in 2014 are predicted to take 6.5 percent of all retail sales — meaning 93.5 percent of all retail sales will still occur in brick-and-mortar stores (emphasis mine).

Ditto similar math for the holiday season this year: only 8.4 percent of it will occur online.

Content Really Is King

Content, rather, is where Amazon's future lies--hence its adventure with the Fire Phone and its investments in other areas.

Consider the $970 million acquisition of Twitch Interactive, a real-time video platform for gamers that Amazon made in the third quarter and that is set to close next year.

The site launched in June 2011 and by July of this year, more than 55 million unique visitors had viewed more than 15 billion minutes of content on the platform.

These viewers, which range from individual gamers to pro players, publishers, developers, media outlets to conventions and e-sports organizations, share several commonalities: they are fiercely devoted to the platform, they spend hours every day online and they are eager to consume new content.

And now they are going to be under Amazon's roof.

Title image by Dave Gray  (Flickr) via a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.