When Amazon ( AMZN) announced its earnings yesterday, reaction was swift -- and harsh. Even after the launch of Amazon's Fire TV and Phone and a year-over-year revenue jump of more than 23 percent, the company saw a $126 million loss.
The quarterly miss was bad. Analysts had expected on average a loss of 15 cents a share. Amazon almost doubled that, losing 27 cents a share. And the company said the current quarter could be worse. After-market trading was none too kind. Share prices were down by 10.6 percent by the evening. Investors have been patient, but they increasingly want to know when the red ink will end.
Amazon's scant profits (when it has any at all) are presumably part CEO Jeff Bezos' master vision. Over the years he has doggedly set out to enter new areas, gain market share and hold customers close. He's been willing to spend lots to achieve his aim. But a reckoning may be coming.
Bezos is a firm believer in investing, even if it puts his company into the red. He had plenty of new things to boast about this quarter: a TV set-top box and smartphone as well as a free music streaming service for people who subscribe to its Prime service. Plus, Amazon just announced the Kindle Unlimited program, which is like ebooks using a Netflix-style subscription service offering unlimited use.
As the digital editor of USA Today tweeted: "There's a lot going on at Amazon. Just none of it's making any money."
Losing money isn't new for Amazon. The company was famously in the red quarter after quarter when it started. Bezos has steadfastly pursued his growth-over-profits strategy even when internal indicators say things could be amiss, like his own optimization algorithms telling the company to raise its prices.
But in a way, Amazon is always reforming itself and never becomes a thoroughly mature company because of the continuous product and service additions and expansions. It's as though it must constantly return to its roots and have every new venture start at a loss, like some odd retailing rite of passage.
An element of belief has long kept analysts and shareholders loyal to Bezos and his notion that Amazon could outrun the market, cut prices, gain market share, add new lines of business and eventually come out on top. Ultimately, all those losses would right themselves as the company buried competitors and conquered all.
The difference now is that more people are asking just when this will happen? As Colin Gillis of BGC Partners told The New York Times: "It's hard to have $20 billion in revenue and not make any money. It's a real feat."
Investors can't even take comfort that all the new ventures are smashing hits bound to win over the masses. Amazon's Prime Music streaming started without Universal Music, which has the single largest collection of recordings and is available through competitors. The Fire Phone received heavily dismissive reviews.
Unlike Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook ( FB) or Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt of Google (GOOG), Bezos never structured the stock so he would retain absolute control. That means at some point he has to please the big investors, who could literally change the board to a group that holds no loyalty to him. Amazon could exist without him.
It's not as though anyone has issued a public threat to Bezos. But it's becoming clearer that however much patience the CEO has, investors don't have the same amount.