By Kevin Kelleher, contributor
FORTUNE -- No matter how much research is done before an investment, there always remains a little bit of faith when it comes time to place a trade. People may mock analysts when their forecasts are off, but the analysts who aren't pressured by their firms to dress up estimates -- which is a lot of them -- still miss the mark sometimes. Research only takes you so far. After that it's only guesswork.
Few stocks involve more guessing than Amazon (AMZN). The company is tightfisted when it comes to disclosing data or metrics. How many Kindles has Amazon sold? The company won't say. It discloses holiday shipments, but only on the peak day and not for the entire season. Amazon Web services will make an estimated $3.8 billion in revenues a year, but the company won't break it out as its own category, lumping it in with "other revenue" where it's been for years. Figuring out the division's profit margins is even more of a challenge.
When it comes to guidance, Amazon does offer it (while others like Facebook (FB) have been mute on guidance in recent quarters), but it usually offers a range you could drive a UPS truck through. Will Amazon post an operating profit or a loss this quarter? Yes. According to the company, the figure will land somewhere between a loss of $340 million to a profit of $10 million. That's a dartboard any monkey could hit.
The lack of clarity leaves investors who rely on fundamentals with an uneasy choice: either don't invest in Amazon's stock or simply trust the management that it will manage things well. Those who've opted for the latter have done pretty well for themselves. Amazon's stock is up 234% over the past five years, while the S&P 500 (SPX) is up 15%.
Amazon asks investors to trust its management in other ways. It has never paid a dividend, asserting that, "We intend to retain all future earnings to finance future growth." That also means Amazon consistently has thin profit margins and sometimes slips into a loss when it's spending heavily on that future growth. But it's earned trust because it has so consistently delivered on growth in revenue.
But it can sometimes put Amazon bulls in an awkward position. The company has always stressed free cash flow as the key financial metric to measure its health, instead of the earnings per share that is the standard gauge for many investors. Free cash flow is basically the cash the business is generating beyond the spending needed to keep growing. Amazon feels it's a better measure of whether Amazon's strategy of returning profits to customers (and not investors) is succeeding.
The problem is, the growth in Amazon's free cash flow over the past 12 months fell to $177 million, an 85% drop from the comparable period a year earlier. That's primarily because Amazon paid $1.4 billion for new offices in Seattle. But free cash flow is slowing at the same time revenue growth is: Revenues in the last quarter grew 1% on year, down from 5% in the previous quarter and 12% in the year-ago quarter.
Where Amazon is gaining is in another financial metric favored by its investors: gross margin, which grew to to 25.6% from 24% a year earlier. That means Amazon's revenue is growing faster than its core operating costs, and that previous spending appears to be paying off.
But which is it? Are rising gross margins signs that Amazon is thriving? Or are declining revenues and free cash flow signaling that it's hitting some headwinds? Unsurprisingly, the bulls are pointing to the former, and the bears are pointing to the latter. So Amazon remains one of the most divisive stocks in the tech sector.
Amazon is spending aggressively to expand in Europe as well as Asia, where it faces a formidable competitor in Alibaba. It's investing in original TV programming to compete against Netflix (NFLX) and Hulu. And it's adding to Prime benefits to reward customer loyalty. All of these plans are sound and could lead to stronger growth in coming years.
Amazon's stock has declined 6% since it reported its earnings, suggesting the bears have a stronger case for now. A little more clarity in how its business is working would help alleviate those fears and reward investors, if not with dividends or high net profit margins, then with more data to help them justify their good faith in the company.
Amazon may be heading into a period of slower revenue growth and higher capital spending. Nonetheless, the company's believers are sticking with the stock, remembering that it's never paid for very long to underestimate Jeff Bezos.
Kevin Kelleher is a writer covering finance and technology in the San Francisco Bay Area.
It ends this week. Investors might as well get ready for the negative headlines.
FORTUNE -- The bad news is that every analyst we've surveyed -- even the most bullish -- believes that for the first time in a decade Apple (AAPL) will report that its income this quarter was lower than the same quarter the year before.
According to Thomson Financial, the consensus EPS for fiscal Q2 2013 on Friday was MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Mar 24, 2013 9:43 AM ET
An analyst takes a close look at Apple's margins and finds the Street's consensus lacking
Bernstein Research's Toni Sacconaghi gets a lot of attention from critics when he shortchanges Apple (AAPL). (See, for example, The case of the missing iPhones.)
When he comes to praise Cupertino? Not so much.
Case in point: The largely unnoticed 13-page report he issued last week on the iPhone's gross profit margins, which he estimates at nearly 60%. MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Mar 2, 2010 8:21 AM ET
Turley Muller has been arguing for more than a year that Wall Street seriously underestimates the impact of the iPhone on Apple's (AAPL) bottom line.
Muller, a former mortgage trading analyst, currently unemployed, tracks Apple's performance in his blog Financial Alchemist, where his estimates of Apple's earnings put the Street's consensus to shame. Over the past four quarters, he has missed reported EPS by 4 cents, 2 cents, 1 cent and MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Jul 29, 2009 10:04 AM ET
Apple's (AAPL) fiscal third quarter earnings are due out Tuesday, July 21, and once again the Street is focused on the big numbers -- revenues, earnings and units sold for the Mac, iPhone and iPod.
But savvy analysts will be paying closer attention to the number that is the best measure of a firm's profitibilty: gross margin, expressed as the ratio of profits to revenues. Or
(Revenue - Cost of sales) / MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Jul 18, 2009 9:14 AM ET
|November jobs report: Unemployment falls to 7%|
|Five key numbers behind the jobs recovery|
|Where should you put your money now?|
|2 million Facebook, Gmail and Twitter passwords stolen in massive hack|
|Sick days: A luxury many hourly workers don't have|