Rethinking Apple and Amazon – All About The Cash

This article also appeared on The Motley Fool.

Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) and Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) could not be more different in their corporate philosophies regarding profits and cash. Amazon spends almost every dime it earns, keeping the net profit down as close to zero as possible. Apple, on the other hand, keeps most of it as cash that just sits around doing nothing. As an investor, one would like some kind of balance of cash hoarding, returning that cash to investors, or reinvesting it in the business. So these two extremes make an interesting comparison considering the market reaction after earnings season: Amazon continues to rise, while Apple continues to drop.

So far, I’ve been of the opinion that Apple is a better investment, because it makes money — lots of it. However, Apple just hangs on to it, and then it does nothing for the company. Apple just started giving a minimal amount of that cash back to investors via dividends and buybacks, but not enough.

Also, Apple invests less in R&D (notice how even troubled Nokia outspent Apple) than most of its competitors. So it’s not even investing seemingly enough of its money back into its own business.

In fact, every few days someone writes an article on how Apple can use their cash better. Even I can think of a few suggestions, like doubling its dividend, becoming vertically integrated like Intel, or investing more in different lines of products or faster product update cycles. Not pursuing this latter strategy, and sticking to its guns on fewer product options, had been costing Apple market share to Android devices, which offer more size, storage, screen, and technology options.

Now, Amazon, on the other hand, has relatively little cash on hand. It chooses to invest heavily in expanding its infrastructure. Logically, the primary reason to run a business is to make money. If you are running a business for that purpose, the best thing to do with money earned would be to invest it back in the business — exactly what Amazon has been doing, and exactly the opposite of Apple. Most quarters, Amazon revenue is growing faster than the growth of overall online retail, which means it is taking market share.

Looking at both the stocks from this perspective, Amazon can look like a better investment, because it seems to believe in its business more than Apple does. Of course, Amazon is an extreme case. Most tech companies hoard cash. But almost everyone seems to be managing it better than Apple.

Just to see whether this theory held water – I made a chart looking at gross profits instead of net — because as far as Amazon goes, its microscopic net margin doesn’t seem to matter to investors. I’m generally all about the net profit, but to offer some insight into Amazon’s meteoric stock price, maybe the gross profit will work better.

Looking at the chart, Amazon looks like it is increasing revenues and gross profits, while consistently keeping constant gross margins. Amazon doesn’t look bad at all until you factor in the net income.

So Apple has Amazon beat in everything except stock price. This means that as far as Amazon is concerned, this extreme spending for expansion at the expense of current profit is desirable to investors, because Amazon is doing something useful with its cash. And that means that everybody expects Amazon’s strategy to pay off at some point. Amazon does have a lot of room to grow, which might be true considering their revenue is still only 12% of that of Wal-mart.

So even though subjectively there might be some logic to “Amazon misses but stock soars“, there is relatively less logic, looking at the chart, to Apple’s stock drop. However, looking beyond the chart. Apple can be seen as the opposite case of Amazon.

In spite of having more cash than it could ever need, Apple is losing marketshare to the plethora of Android devices. Apple possibly needs to spend more and get ahead, instead of resting on their existing laurels. So you could say that their cash is mismanaged. They have too much, and are neither giving it back to investors, nor investing it in their business.

I’m still long Apple for now, and avoiding Amazon, though. I’m not sure how long Amazon can continue making no money . It has been going at this strategy for a long time, and it is time to start making more money. Apple seems to learn its lesson, just like it did with the iPad mini. There’s still plenty of market for Apple to enter into, even with existing products.

Disclosure: Long AAPL, INTC, NOK

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