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Regulation remains only shadow across Amazon's future growth

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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. Photo: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

I have spent the last few weeks watching the great bull market, so beloved by Donald Trump, curl up and die a sudden and painful death.

The coronavirus has been just one of the factors behind those tumbling share values as recession stalked the markets like a medieval plague. Not surprisingly, the biggest hits so far have been reserved for sectors like airlines, leisure, aircraft leasing, hotels, events and the drinks industries.

Nevertheless the technology business, though not immune to the massive shake-out, can muster some resistance, so I thought I'd look at how one market leader, Amazon, was faring amidst all the heartache. It is, after all, one of the strongest brands in the world.

It is hard to credit that the Seattle-based outfit has been around for a mere quarter of a century. Founder Jeff Bezos started out selling books online in the 1990s, but Amazon today is the largest internet company in the world. It has a market cap of $955bn and Bezos, by virtue of his stake in the company, is richest man around.

It is also the second largest private employer in the US with 760,000 employees. While it might have broken a great deal of growth records on the way up, Amazon has not escaped criticism for its hyper competitiveness and a difficult work culture.

Its business is centred on Amazon Prime Subscription, Amazon Market Place and Cloud-based services.

The prime subscription platform gives its customers cheap prices, free deliveries and access to its video screening, e-books and music. It has evolved into a retail giant selling electronics, video games, toys, jewels, food, furniture and apparel.

Its Market Place platform helps other businesses sell their products in return for a percentage of their sales.

This is being examined by the EU. It is looking to see if there is a conflict of interest where Amazon competes with its sellers and if the web site favours its own products.

While most attention is given to Amazon's retail business, its cloud-based computer service (AWS) is the real star and its most profitable. Margins in this division are an impressive 30pc.

It offers customers cloud storage with data and analytical services. The success of cloud computing has helped the group deliver growth and free cash flow now close to $30bn (€27.7bn).

North America is Amazon's largest market with 60pc of its $280bn (€259bn) sales. While North American margins have doubled in the last two years, they still remain low at 5pc. Its international business revenues are less than half of North America and have been losing significant money. This business is concentrated on Japan, Germany and the UK. The company is eyeing growing markets like India but finding the Chinese market challenging in terms of revenue and profit.

There is no denying that over the years Amazon's growth has been stunning and its share price clearly implies it expects to keep growing.

In the last decade it has seen revenues jump from $24bn to $280bn and net income rise from under $900m to $11.5bn. Amazon's financial position is very healthy with strong cash balances and considerable barriers to entry.

Analysts believe the outlook is positive for profits, revenues and cash flow. They are also of the opinion the company can grow by targeting new markets like India and new sectors in North America. The shares are expensive at just under $1,900 (€1,758) each - down 10pc since last February - and they trade at a stunning 83 times earnings. With margins improving, the shares could offer some upside.

The biggest threat to Amazon is political and regulatory, exactly as John D Rockefeller found a century ago. However, the lack of a level playing field between online retailers and the high street is an issue most governments want to sort out and remains an issue overhanging Amazon.

Nothing in this section should be taken as a recommendation, either explicit or implicit to buy any of the shares mentioned.

Irish Independent