Jeff Bezos will keep spending, Wall Street will keep fuming

Amazon notches another quarter where it spent like a Chicago ward leader at Christmas time -- but there's a method to the seeming madness.

Amazon Kindle Fire HD
Jeff Bezos shows off the Kindle Fire HD at 9/6/12 event. James Martin/CNET
So Amazon unnerved investors with a much- bigger-than-expected loss. That might be news at a company not led by Jeff Bezos.

But we've seen this movie before -- many times, in fact -- and odds are high that we'll see it again, or at least for as long as Amazon's founder remains in charge. If Wall Street had a vote in the matter, I'm sure that more than a few would welcome a change at the top. Happily for Amazon, Bezos hasn't given any hint of lighting out for Hawaii.

They may dislike his free-spending ways, but even the critics acknowledge Bezos for being one of the more strategic thinkers in the technology business. The question has always been whether it's the right strategy. I think he's been a lot smarter than the average bear, but history will offer the final judgment. This much is beyond dispute: In an industry infested with quick buck artists, Bezos is decidedly old school, doing what needs to get done to build the world's largest Internet retailer and a company that's designed to last. If that sometimes involved spending like a Chicago ward leader at Christmas time, then so be it.

Bezos' conviction hasn't always gone down well because it meant sacrificing near-term profits at the alter of long-term market share gains. Bezos alluded to that philosophy in the canned quote in the earnings release today when he said that Amazon's "approach is to work hard to charge less. Sell devices near breakeven and you can pack a lot of sophisticated hardware into a very low price point."

Unfortunately, we were deprived of a fun go-around after Amazon posted a $274 million loss that was a lot larger than analysts had expected because Bezos let his CFO handle the post-earnings conference call. In large part, though, the red ink reflected a $169 million loss suffered by LivingSocial, Amazon's daily deals business.

Of course, it also reflected a big increase in quarterly operating expenses, which climbed to $13.8 billion from $10.8 billion in the year-ago period. A lot of that was connected to the cost of opening 19 fulfillment centers in preparation for the big sales crush in the fourth quarter. Amazon also is hiring more than 50,000 seasonal employees for the end-of-year sales push. At the same time, Amazon is investing in new regions, such as Italy, China and Spain. In the short-term, that's an expense; in the long-term, the hope is that the investments in new revenue streams ought to generate a (still unknown) return.

This is long ball. The profit margins may stink but Bezos is willing to pay through the nose now for investments in infrastructure and products that will pay off for Amazon down the road (or so he hopes.) It's not for everyone and if you're not a patient - make that very patient -- investor, this is the sort of CEO whose actions will give you agita.

The criticism is just part of the job and my guess is that Bezos is not bothered a bit.

 

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