Amazon’s profitless path to world domination

Resistance is futile.
Resistance is futile.
Image: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton
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Twenty years ago this week, Amazon went public. Then an online bookseller, the company has since grown into a globe-spanning retail giant worth more than $430 billion in market cap.

That’s a 50,000% return (give or take a few thousand percent) if you bought Amazon’s shares when it first listed. The company is now the fourth most valuable firm on the US stock market.

This is all the more remarkable considering that Amazon has made just $5 billion in net profit over the past 20 years (adjusted for inflation). Exxon’s profits are 100 times Amazon’s since its IPO. In half that time, Facebook has made nearly five times more. And yet, investors see Amazon as worth tens of billions more than either firm.

Amazon’s steady march to global domination is down to founder Jeff Bezos’s famously aggressive focus on expansion over profitability, even as the retailer has matured and vanquished many of its rivals. This may soon change, with Amazon finding it increasingly difficult not to convert its massive cash flow into big profits. Half of the net profit it has generated over the past 20 years has come in the past four quarters.

That said, it will still take a long time for Amazon to build a record of consistent profitability like the companies around it in the market-cap rankings. Until then, it remains a paragon for tech firms with big plans but small earnings.