The company's $3 billion quarterly profit nearly matched what it earned in all of 2017.
Amazon’s fourth-quarter sales hit a record $72.4 billion, yielding a $3 billion profit — both surpassing analysts’ expectations.
But the company’s 19.7 percent year-over-year sales growth represented a substantial slowdown from growth rates ranging from 25 to 43 percent the previous six quarters, due in part to the law of large numbers. It’s harder to keep growing fast with quarterly sales that stretch to 11 digits.
The company said in its earnings report Thursday that sales growth is likely to slow further in the current quarter. Amazon expects to start 2019 with quarterly sales of $56 billion to $60 billion, up 10 percent to 18 percent. Excluding a foreign-exchange impact, the growth rate would be about 2 percentage points higher, said Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky.
The midpoint of the revenue-growth guidance, 14 percent, would represent the slowest quarterly growth at Amazon since at least 2012.
Clouding the company’s prospects is India, where the government is implementing new rules that place limitations on foreign e-commerce companies.
While its growth may be slowing, Amazon’s profits and profitability are mounting. Its fourth-quarter profit was just below the earnings the company recorded for the entire year in 2017. Amazon’s full-year 2018 profit — $10.1 billion — is more than triple the year-earlier result. Sales for the full year grew 31 percent to $232.9 billion.
“In a lot of ways, 2018 was about banking the efficiencies of investments in people, warehouses, infrastructure that we had put in place in 2016 and ’17,” Olsavsky said. He added that he expects the company to increase investments this year relative to 2019, in part to support the continued growth of Amazon Web Services (AWS), its computing and software rental business. The company has also committed to a major expansion in Virginia and New York with a $5 billion price tag.
Amazon shares closed the regular session Thursday up 2.9 percent, but in after-hours trading following the earnings release lost 4.9 percent to finish at $1,634.
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That investors seemed to focus more on the slowdown ahead rather than the record-setting quarter and year just completed that could mark a turning point in Amazon’s story.
“At some point, they’re going to have to look for more sales opportunities outside of traditional retail, otherwise the law of large numbers is going to have a greater impact on future sales growth,” said Tom Forte, managing director and senior research analyst at D.A. Davidson.
And indeed, Amazon continues to show outsize profits and growth in AWS and advertising.
AWS sales increased 45 percent in the quarter to $7.4 billion and generated nearly $2.2 billion in operating income. AWS accounted for 10 percent of the company’s net sales in the quarter, up from 8 percent in the year-earlier period.
Amazon’s “other” business segment — consisting mainly of its fast-growing advertising business — generated nearly $3.8 billion in sales in the quarter, up 97 percent. Amazon makes money now by allowing companies to pay for preferred placement for their products in search results on its website.
But executives see opportunities to sell advertisements tied to its various video offerings. For example, Olsavsky said, the company launched Free Dive, an ad-supported streaming video channel attached to its internet Movie Database (IMDb) site in January. It also sells ads on its live sports programming, such as Thursday Night Football.
The company ended 2018 with 647,500 employees globally, up 14 percent. On Nov. 1, Amazon raised its companywide minimum wage to $15 an hour, a move it said benefited some 250,000 employees in the U.S.
Amazon’s workforce grew by 48 percent in 2016 and 38 percent in 2017, not including major acquisitions, Olsavsky said. The marked slowdown in hiring in 2018 is partly a result of what he described as “a lot of prehiring in 2017 that we digested in 2018.” And the slowing is not across-the-board. Amazon continues to rapidly ramp-up employment in AWS technology and sales and in its devices business.
Investors are watching for any potential fallout at Amazon from the divorce of founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. Olsavsky had no comment when asked whether Bezos has any plans to sell shares or reduce his stake in the company, which stands at just over 16 percent.