为什么不像很多其他公司一样首先关注盈利呢？我们答案简单来说就是盈利不能直接反映为现金流，而股票的价值反映的是公司未来现金流的折现值而不是未来的盈利。未来的盈利是衡量未来现金流的重要成分，但不是唯一的成分。营运资本（Working capital）、资本支出（capital expenditures）和未来股权稀释一样都是重要的指标。
尽管听起来非常反直觉，但有的时候公司盈利却可能伤害股东的利益。当增长所需的投资超过了源自这些投资的现金流现值的时候，股东的利益实际是受损的（This happens when the capital investments required for growth exceed the present value of the cash flow derived from those investments）
还要注意一下如果仅关注EBITDA（Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Aamortization），也一样会带来对企业健康的错误评估。每年的EBITDA分别是5千万、一亿、两亿和四亿，每年翻番。但是如果不考虑12.8亿用于产生这个“现金流”的资本支出，我们就没看到问题的全貌——EBITDA不是现金流。
我们有一个“白赚钱营业周期（cash generative operating cycle，见下段）”，因为我们库存周转特别快，在付钱给买房之前就能收到买方的款项。我们周转率快也就意味着我们在库存上的投入就会更少——去年70亿的生意里我们只花了4.8亿在库存上。
（The operating cycle is number of days of sales in inventory plus number of days of sales in accounts receivable minus accounts payable days. 译者注：隔行如隔山，我每个词都懂就是不好翻译，多多包涵）
Jeffrey P. Bezos
To our shareholders:
Our ultimate financial measure, and the one we most want to drive over the long-term, is free cash flow per share.
Why not focus first and foremost, as many do, on earnings, earnings per share or earnings growth? The simple answer is that earnings don’t directly translate into cash flows, and shares are worth only the present value of their future cash flows, not the present value of their future earnings. Future earnings are a component—but not the only important component—of future cash flow per share. Working capital and capital expenditures are also important, as is future share dilution.
Though some may find it counterintuitive, a company can actually impair shareholder value in certain circumstances by growing earnings. This happens when the capital investments required for growth exceed the present value of the cash flow derived from those investments.
To illustrate with a hypothetical and very simplified example, imagine that an entrepreneur invents a machine that can quickly transport people from one location to another. The machine is expensive—$160 million with an annual capacity of 100,000 passenger trips and a four year useful life. Each trip sells for $1,000 and requires $450 in cost of goods for energy and materials and $50 in labor and other costs.
Continue to imagine that business is booming, with 100,000 trips in Year 1, completely and perfectly utilizing the capacity of one machine. This leads to earnings of $10 million after deducting operating expenses including depreciation—a 10% net margin. The company’s primary focus is on earnings; so based on initial results the entrepreneur decides to invest more capital to fuel sales and earnings growth, adding additional machines in Years 2 through 4.
Here are the income statements for the first four years of business:
It’s impressive: 100% compound earnings growth and $150 million of cumulative earnings. Investors considering only the above income statement would be delighted.
However, looking at cash flows tells a different story. Over the same four years, the transportation business generates cumulative negative free cash flow of $530 million.
There are of course other business models where earnings more closely approximate cash flows. But as our transportation example illustrates, one cannot assess the creation or destruction of shareholder value with certainty by looking at the income statement alone.
Notice, too, that a focus on EBITDA—Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation and Amortization— would lead to the same faulty conclusion about the health of the business. Sequential annual EBITDA would have been $50, $100, $200 and $400 million—100% growth for three straight years. But without taking into account the $1.28 billion in capital expenditures necessary to generate this ‘cash flow,’ we’re getting only part of the story—EBITDA isn’t cash flow.
What if we modified the growth rates and, correspondingly, capital expenditures for machinery—would cash flows have deteriorated or improved?
Paradoxically, from a cash flow perspective, the slower this business grows the better off it is. Once the initial capital outlay has been made for the first machine, the ideal growth trajectory is to scale to 100% of capacity quickly, then stop growing. However, even with only one piece of machinery, the gross cumulative cash flow doesn’t surpass the initial machine cost until Year 4 and the net present value of this stream of cash flows (using 12% cost of capital) is still negative.
Unfortunately our transportation business is fundamentally flawed. There is no growth rate at which it makes sense to invest initial or subsequent capital to operate the business. In fact, our example is so simple and clear as to be obvious. Investors would run a net present value analysis on the economics and quickly determine
it doesn’t pencil out. Though it’s more subtle and complex in the real world, this issue—the duality between earnings and cash flows—comes up all the time.
Cash flow statements often don’t receive as much attention as they deserve. Discerning investors don’t stop with the income statement.
Our Most Important Financial Measure: Free Cash Flow Per Share
Amazon.com’s financial focus is on long-term growth in free cash flow per share.
Amazon.com’s free cash flow is driven primarily by increasing operating profit dollars and efficiently managing both working capital and capital expenditures. We work to increase operating profit by focusing on improving all aspects of the customer experience to grow sales and by maintaining a lean cost structure.
We have a cash generative operating cycle1 because we turn our inventory quickly, collecting payments from our customers before payments are due to suppliers. Our high inventory turnover means we maintain relatively low levels of investment in inventory—$480 million at year end on a sales base of nearly $7 billion.
The capital efficiency of our business model is illustrated by our modest investments in fixed assets, which were $246 million at year end or 4% of 2004 sales.
Free cash flow2 grew 38% to $477 million in 2004, a $131 million improvement over the prior year. We are confident that if we continue to improve customer experience—including increasing selection and lowering prices—and execute efficiently, our value proposition, as well as our free cash flow, will further expand.
As to dilution, total shares outstanding plus stock-based awards are essentially unchanged at the end of 2004 compared with 2003, and are down 1% over the last three years. During that same period, we’ve also eliminated over six million shares of potential future dilution by repaying more than $600 million of convertible debt that was due in 2009 and 2010. Efficiently managing share count means more cash flow per share and more long term value for owners.
This focus on free cash flow isn’t new for Amazon.com. We made it clear in our 1997 letter to shareholders—our first as a public company—that when “forced to choose between optimizing GAAP accounting and maximizing the present value of future cash flows, we’ll take the cash flows.” I’m attaching a copy of our complete 1997 letter and encourage current and prospective shareowners to take a look at it.
As always, we at Amazon.com are grateful to our customers for their business and trust, to each other for our hard work, and to our shareholders for their support and encouragement.
Jeffrey P. Bezos
Founder and Chief Executive Officer
1 The operating cycle is number of days of sales in inventory plus number of days of sales in accounts receivable minus accounts payable days.
2 Free cash flow is defined as net cash provided by operating activities less purchases of fixed assets, including capitalized internal-use software and website development, both of which are presented on our statements of cash flows. Free cash flow for 2004 of $477 million is net cash provided by operating activities of $567 million less purchases of fixed assets, including capitalized internal-use software and website development costs, of $89 million. Free cash flow for 2003 of $346 million is net cash provided by operating activities of $392 million less purchases of fixed assets, including capitalized internal-use software and website development costs, of $46 million.