At the bottom line, Amazon is primarily a retailer. Yes, it has interests in other areas, but the main driver and public image of Amazon is retail.
Alibaba does retail, too, but it also does so much more, including payments, search, business-to-business web portals and cloud computing. All of that makes Alibaba kind of like a mash-up of Amazon, Google (GOOG), eBay (EBAY) and PayPal, among other services.
No wonder the newly minted Alibaba stock has a total market value of $223 billion, while AMZN stock adds up to just $148 billion.
Much to the relief of anyone holding Amazon stock, Alibaba and AMZN don’t directly compete with each other. When it comes to these two leviathans, east is east and west is west. One thing they do have in common, however, are tremendously bright futures with the potential for outstanding shareholder returns.
If you could own just one — AMZN stock or Alibaba stock — which would be the better buy? Let’s look at the investment cases for both of the names:
Amazon Stock (AMZN)
AMZN stock is off almost 20% for the year-to-date as the market increasingly loses patience with its “No profits? No problem!” attitude.
Founder Jeff Bezos has always played a long game. Anyone holding Amazon stock must know this. The strategy is to reinvest everything back into the business until it achieves global domination. E-tailing? Check. Big data? Check. Mobile? Check. The list goes on. Indeed, Amazon has its finger in just about every important digital pie there is.
At some point, however, the market needs to see all this investment pay off. That’s the whole point, right? Both Amazon and its shareholders are supposed to achieve a return on their investments.
It’s hard to see either scenario playing out anytime soon. Bezos remains committed to driving accelerating revenue at the cost of profits. Furthermore, Amazon stock looks like a loser on a number of other fronts.
As InvestorPlace editor Jeff Reeves has argued again and again and again, Amazon has loads of headwinds. Among its litany of woes, sentiment on AMZN stock stinks, it’s losing the hardware battle in both smartphones and tablets, its streaming video service can’t make inroads against Netflix (NFLX) and — with a forward price-to-earnings ratio of 167 — it is insanely overpriced.
On the plus side, all this investment in empire-building will pay off one day, making Amazon a fountain of earnings. When that day will come is known only to Jeff Bezos.
Alibaba Stock (BABA)
Alibaba went public less than two weeks ago and already Alibaba stock is off more than 5% from its aftermarket price. As we wrote before, it’s pretty much impossible to ascribe the movement in BABA stock to anything. Alibaba stock is still settling after the earthquake of the IPO process, which creates supply demand issues, as well as short-term trading opportunities.
Longer term, you can see why the market was clamoring for this IPO — the biggest on record. Even with its economy in cool-down mode, China remains a favorite bet for future riches. Its massive economy is still growing at 7% to 8% a year, on track to overtake the U.S. as the biggest in the world. BABA stock represents a direct-yet-varied way to play that growth.
But given the forward P/E of 38, BABA needs to expand its business rapidly — in China and abroad — to justify that lofty valuation. Alibaba had 11 billion orders last year. That raises concerns that the days of exponential growth are behind it as it penetrates the Chinese middle class faster than it can expand.
As such, the market wants to see Alibaba expand to international markets. (It already has India in its sights.) The BABA business model is untested in other countries and cultures, and that makes international expansion a big risk. If Alibaba fails, you can expect a large contraction in its earnings multiple — and, by extension, share price.
A long-term value investor wouldn’t be interested in either AMZN or BABA stock. They’re simply too expensive on both a forward and trailing basis to be any kind of bargains.
That said, they’re both big bets on the digital future and rise of China, two secular trends that are essentially sure things.
Amazon stock might be out of favor right now, but it’s been there before and always bounced back. Bezos has never managed the company for profits. As long as revenue keeps chugging along, there will always be buyers of AMZN stock. All it takes is one or two catalysts for Amazon stock to regain its place as a Nasdaq-driver.
Alibaba, fresh off its IPO, is a tougher call. It has no track record yet as a publicly traded company. And as good as the story may be — The Rise of China — the nitty gritty of operations and strategy to exploit that idea are messy. There are always unforeseen challenges and stumbling blocks. Indeed, it’s almost a credit to the market’s reasonableness that BABA stock trades at “only” 40 times forward earnings (compared to, say, AMZN’s multiple).
But if you had to choose just one, at this point BABA stock looks to have more upside, at least in the short term. One better-than-expected earnings report is all it needs to pop. Amazon, on the other hand, will take a while to regain its momentum-stock status.
As of this writing, Dan Burrows did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.