Uber and Lyft: Unprofitable Powerhouses
August 09, 2019
Lead Tech Analyst
Ride-share earnings this week proved that if you lower the bar to the ground, any earnings performance can leap over it. Both companies reported staggering losses that were delivered with positive PR spins.
Lyft reported “record second quarter results” while losing roughly the same amount of money as previous years. Uber had an epic $5 billion loss that is closer to $1.3 billion adjusted. The second number only looks acceptable in the parallel universe where a $65 billion market cap company can report any losses at all, let alone $4 billion per year.
Likewise, Lyft looks digestible compared to its counterpart at $850M in losses, until you realize these numbers haven’t improved since 2016 when the company reported negative net losses of $692M and net losses of $708M in 2017. There is an improvement from 2018, but again, this depends on how you spin it. To me, it’s cut and dry – Investable companies should have fewer losses as they grow revenue. There may be quarters where a company moves backwards, maybe due to capex or another legitimate reason, but the revenue growth in ridesharing creates losses due to subsidizing, and this is a holistic problem that is not going away.
The market found it encouraging that Lyft was expected to lose $1.1B but has revised this to $850M for 2019. Profit margins are negative 23%versus negative 37.7%. The price was adjusted for the $200M improvement, which during after-hours resulted in a 11% spike. The spike soon settled when Lyft announced they are moving up the lock-up period from late September to August 19th.
We see evidence of the holistic problem where Lyft’s losses will marginally improve this year compared to last year. There is no evidence, however, that this is sustainable. If Lyft needs to support R&D on autonomous driving, for instance, then the margins will be deep in the red once again. An important metric to watch is the EBIT margin of -77% compared to -61% a year ago.
Uber’s Q2 resultsare more straight forward to analyze. Adjusted EBITDA was negative 292M in the year-ago period compared to negative 656M in the current period for an increase of 125%. Keep in mind, Uber Eats and Uber Freight help offset the losses.
As I stated in MarketWatch, I’m not a fan of the price war narrative. Increases in revenue per users is irrelevant if the losses are also accelerating or stagnant. This means the subsidization of rides continues to drive demand, and if both companies raise prices, they will also have more losses. The end of a price war sounds like a PR spin to me and we see no evidence in the financials that this will do anything for profitability.
There are also many other unknowns in how demand will react to higher priced supply. Gross bookings may decrease as people decide to drive to a destination, park at the airport for $8 per day, or hire a regular taxi who is already waiting outside many venues. Also, Uber may pull ahead of Lyft if prices go up as the service has more drivers readily available and is a larger brand.
I’ve written extensively about these companies and expressed why my readers should steer clear ahead of the IPOs during the exuberant market of April 2019. I highly recommend anyone who wants to invest in the ride-sharing story to consider the liquidity the lock-up expirations will create with more shares flooding the market.
I won’t repeat everything here, but below are a few bullet points from my previous analysis published March 14th, 2019 – one month before Lyft went public. I’ve also included links to my previous analysis on Uber – both before and after the company went public.
- Lyft and Uber pay incentives to acquire and retain users. In gaming, a company might spend $8 to acquire a user with a lifetime value of $15 per user for a profit of $7. The problem with ride-sharing apps is that the incentives offered do not cover the costs of the ride, and that is one reason we see strong sales growth mired by substantial net losses.
- Reuters has some historic information on this dated back to 2015, when Uber passengers paid only 41 percent of the actual cost of their trips. At the time, Reuters reported that this creates an “artificial signal about the size of the market” with Uber releasing limited financial data that showed losses of $708 million per quarter.
- Lyft and Uber are mobile applications, but the business model is more of a large-cap human resources department with many variables around wages, and potentially regulations due to independent contractor classifications. (There was a recent $20 million settlement due to the misclassification of drivers in California).
- A paramount risk to both Uber and Lyft is total addressable market. Room for geographic expansion is limited beyond the United States, other than a few outlier countries like Saudi Arabia. Of course, the underlying issue with TAM is a lack of intellectual property with an easy-to-duplicate mobile application that leverages common app features such as GPS location and SMS/voice. For a list of competitors, reference “Lyft: Risky Valuation and No Intellectual Property”
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