As you would expect from a Gawker remnant, Jalopnik has been the go-to site for Uber coverage, both firsthand and through useful links to and summaries of essential reporting and analysis elsewhere.
Here, Ryan Felton directs us to an important piece of analysis by Hubert Horan,
Uber is currently the most highly valued private company in the world. Its primarily Silicon Valley-based investors have a achieved a venture capital valuation of $69 billion based on direct investment of over $13 billion. Uber hopes to earn billions in returns for those investors out of an urban car service industry that historically had razor-thin margins producing a commodity product. Although the industry has been competitively fragmented and structurally stable for over a century, Uber has been aggressively pursuing global industry dominance, in the belief that the industry has been radically transformed into a “winner-take-all” market.
For Uber (or any other radical industry restructuring) to be welfare enhancing, it would have to clearly demonstrate:
The ability to earn sustainable profits in competitive markets large enough to provide attractive returns on its invested capital
The ability to provide service at significantly lower cost, or the ability to produce much higher quality service at similar costs
That it has created new sources of sustainable competitive advantages through major product redesigns and technology/process innovations that incumbent producers could not readily match, and
Evidence that the newly-dominant company will have strong incentive to pass on a significant share of those efficiency gains to consumers.
Unlike most startups, Uber did not enter the industry in pursuit of a significant market share, but was explicitly working to drive incumbents out of business and achieve global industry dominance. Uber’s huge valuation was always predicated on the dramatic growth towards global dominance. Thus if Uber’s valuation and industry dominance were to be welfare enhancing, Uber’s efficiency and competitive advantages would need to be overwhelming, and there would need to be clear evidence of Uber’s ability to generate large profits and consumer welfare benefits out of these advantages.
As shown in Exhibit 2, for the year ending September 2015, Uber had GAAP losses of $2 billion on revenue of $1.4 billion, a negative 143% profit margin. Thus Uber’s current operations depend on $2 billion in subsidies, funded out of the $13 billion in cash its investors have provided.
Uber passengers were paying only 41% of the actual cost of their trips; Uber was using these massive subsidies to undercut the fares and provide more capacity than the competitors who had to cover 100% of their costs out of passenger fares.
Many other tech startups lost money as they pursued growth and market share, but losses of this magnitude are unprecedented; in its worst-ever four quarters, in 2000, Amazon had a negative 50% margin, losing $1.4 billion on $2.8 billion in revenue, and the company responded by firing more than 15 percent of its workforce. 2015 was Uber’s fifth year of operations; at that point in its history Facebook was achieving 25% profit margins.
There is no evidence that Uber’s rapid growth is driving the rapid margin improvements achieved by other prominent tech startups as they “grew into profitability.”
Assuming that the unusual spike in EBITAR margin in the first half of 2014 (157%) was due to one-time events or accounting anomalies, Uber has been steadily producing EBITAR margins worse than negative 100% since 2012, and the absolute magnitude of losses has been increasing.
Uber corporate revenue for the year ending June 2015 was over 500% higher than the year ending June 2014, but the EBITAR margin barely changed, moving from negative 115% to negative 108%. Uber had a negative $1.2 billion EBITAR contribution in the first half of 2016, suggesting full year GAAP losses approaching $3 billion. Uber’s EBITAR contribution margin improved from negative 108% in the first half of 2015 to negative 62% in the first half of 2016, but this margin improvement is entirely explained by Uber imposed cuts in driver compensation. As shown in Exhibit 3, Uber only allowed drivers to retain 77% of each passenger dollar in 2016, down from 83% in 2014-15. If drivers had retained 83% of 2016 passenger payments, Uber’s EBITAR contribution would have been negative $1.8 billion, and its EBITAR margin would have fallen to negative 122%. Uber’s EBITAR margin did not improve because its productive efficiency or market performance was improving; capital was simply claiming a higher share of each revenue dollar and giving less to labor.
If rapid growth could not drive major margin improvements between 2012 and 2016, there is no reason to believe that Uber will suddenly find billions in scale economies going forward. Fundamentally digital companies like Amazon, EBay, Google and Facebook had massive operating scale economies because the marginal cost of expanded operations was close to zero. Aggressive pricing fueled the growth that drove major margin improvements and also created major consumer welfare benefits.
By contrast, in the hundred years since the first motorized taxi, there has been no evidence of significant scale economies in the urban car service industry. That explains why successful operators never expanded to other cities and why there was no natural tendency towards concentration in individual markets. Drivers, vehicles and fuel account for 85% of urban car service costs. None of these costs decline significantly as companies grow. As the P&L data above demonstrates, Uber has not discovered a magical new way to drive down unit costs.
Uber’s refusal to consider an IPO may best be explained by the recognition that publishing detailed, audited financial data confirming these massive losses and the complete lack of progress towards profitability could undermine public confidence about its inevitable march to industry dominance.
There have been hundreds of articles claiming that Uber has produced wonderful benefits, but none of these benefits increase consumer welfare because they depended on billions in subsidies. Uber is currently a staggeringly unprofitable company. Aside from the imposition of unilateral cuts in driver compensation, there is no evidence of any progress towards breakeven, and no one can provide a credible explanation of how Uber could achieve the billions in P&L improvements needed to achieve sustainable profits and investor returns.