Did Amazon Lose Money Last Quarter?

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Amazon.com Inc.’s (NASDAQ: AMZN) third quarter is on the books. Among the most important information it will release to its shareholders is whether it lost money, which has happened more often than many on Wall Street would like. At least some close observers of Amazon believe it will post red ink again.

The consensus forecast is that Amazon will have revenue of $41.8 billion, up 27% from last year. On an earnings basis, Amazon’s figure is expected to show a break even. At least one analyst thinks it will lose $0.33 a share, which would be a disaster for a company growing so quickly. Or would it be?

Part of the charm of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is his ability to say that earnings barely matter if Amazon is growing and spreading into new promising business. That allows him to excuse away quarters when the company posts red ink. It is, to his mind, an investment, on top of nearly countless investments in the past.

Wall Street will ask a small but potent set of questions of Bezos. First, Amazon Web Services (ASW) is growing quickly and is profitable. In the June quarter, it made $916 million on revenue of $4.1 billion. That means that if Amazon loses money as a whole in the third quarter, the loss in its larger e-commerce business will be larger than it looks at first pass.

Bezos has set a number of expensive initiatives recently. It has started to chase Netflix into the business of original streaming content to bring additional customers of it Prime business. Prime, based on most analysis by outsiders, makes money, and it tethers customers to its e-commerce business. However, original content costs can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Bezos also has made an aggressive stand in home electronics. It is by no means certain that Echo Dot and Alexa make money. While they may eventually, Amazon is not only spending money on promotion. Its research and development costs for these have to be substantial. They could either fail, as Amazon’s smartphone did, or be expensive launches, as has been true of Amazon’s tablets.

Amazon’s core e-commerce business, the core selling of products online, most certainly makes money. So does AWS. The experiments remain expensive, and in the minds of those who are tied of red ink, too expensive.