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The Next Big Short

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Submitted by David Stockman via Contra Corner blog,

If you have forgotten your Gulliver’s Travels, recall that Jonathan Swift described the people of Brobdingnag as being as tall as church steeples and having a ten foot stride. Everything else was in proportion – with rats the size of mastiffs and the latter the size of four elephants, while flies were “as big as a Dunstable lark” and wasps were the size of partridges.

Hence the word for this fictional land has come to mean colossal, enormous, gigantic, huge, immense or, as the urban dictionary puts it, “really f*cking big”.

That would also describe the $325 billion bubble which comprises Amazon’s market cap. It is at once brobdangnagian and preposterous – a trick on the casino signifying that the crowd has once again gone stark raving mad.



When you have arrived at a condition of extreme “irrational exuberance” there is probably no insult to ordinary valuation metrics that can shock. But for want of doubt consider that AMZN earned the grand sum of $79 million last quarter and $328 million for the LTM period ending in September.

That’s right. Its conventional PE multiple is 985X!

And, no, its not a biotech start-up in phase 3 FDA trials with a sure fire cancer cure set to be approved any day; its actually been around more than a quarter century, putting it in the oldest quartile of businesses in the US.

But according to the loony posse of sell-side apologists who cover the company——there are 15 buy recommendations—–Amazon is still furiously investing in “growth” after all of these years. So never mind the PE multiple; earnings are being temporarily sacrificed for growth.

Well, yes. On its approximate $100 billion in LTM sales Amazon did generate $32.6 billion of gross profit. But the great builder behind the curtain in Seattle choose to “reinvest” $5 billion in sales and marketing, $14 billion in general and administrative expense and $11.6 billion in R&D.

So there wasn’t much left for the bottom line, and not surprisingly. Amazon’s huge R&D expense alone was actually nearly three times higher than that of pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb. But apparently that’s why Bezos boldly bags the big valuation multiples.

Not so fast, we think. Is there any evidence that all this madcap “investment” in the upper lines of the P&L for all these years is showing signs of momentum in cash generation? After all, sooner or later valuation has to be about free cash flow, even if you set aside GAAP accounting income.

In fact, AMZN generated $9.8 billion in operating cash flow during its most recent LTM period and spent $7.0 billion on CapEx and other investments. So its modest $2.8 billion of free cash flow implies a multiple of 117X.

Needless to say, the sell side chorus insists that one doesn’t matter, either. At the drop of a hat Bezos could purportedly hit the investment “pause” bottom and unleash a surge of free cash&helli

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