Why do investors prefer Amazon to Apple? Sure, the gadget maker’s market capitalization is far larger. Yet investors are willing to pay almost nine times as much for the retailer’s estimated earnings. That looks expensive in any case. But it’s also odd, because Amazon perpetually promises more jam tomorrow, while Apple delivers it.
Both companies are growing revenue at similar rates – just under 30 percent a year. But it’s no contest when it comes to the bottom line. Amazon runs at about break-even – it scraped out a measly $7 million of income from $12.8 billion of sales last quarter. Apple’s 25 percent net margin, meanwhile, generated $8.8 billion of black ink.
Of course, what matters to Wall Street is the future. Amazon is valued at 100 times estimated 2013 earnings because investors think its position as the leading internet retailer, digital content and gadget seller will eventually unleash a torrent of profit.
Meanwhile, Apple’s valuation implies its profit growth will come under pressure. Its stock is valued at 11.6 times next year’s estimated earnings. That’s the same multiple as the S&P 500. Strip out Apple’s huge cash pile and its multiple drops to just nine times earnings.
But if either company’s business looks more solid, it’s Apple’s. It doesn’t compete on price, instead relying on other attributes like quality. Just look at how it has positioned the iPhone and the new iPad mini. Amazon, on the other hand, has a long-standing history of slashing prices to fight rivals. It has built an advanced IT and logistics operation as well.
But one critical financial metric suggests Amazon’s moat may be weaker than it appears. Its return on invested capital has been falling steadily. In 2009 it was more than 40 percent. In this year’s second quarter it stood at just 11 percent. That could mean Amazon is investing in businesses – whether its robotic distribution systems or corporate IT on-demand services. But profitable opportunities for Amazon may simply be drying up.
Apple’s return on invested capital in the past quarter was about four times as high as Amazon’s, implying no such trade-off. Investors would be better off buying Apple today and ignoring Amazon’s promise of jam tomorrow.