Amazon Keeps Rolling on Cash Flow

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Once again, it's time for the critics to back up what the kids on the Internet call the "wahmbulance."

Amazon.com lost money again, this time $41 million, or 9 cents a share, yet investors piled into the stock Friday.

How can this be?

Well, consider that net sales for the latest quarter were $17.09 billion. For last year's third quarter, net sales were $13.81 billion. That's a year-over-year gain of nearly 24%. Net sales are also up sequentially from the second quarter of this year.

When Amazon offers its quarterly results, it doesn't lead with the income statement. It leads with a quarterly statement of cash flow. This is how growth is financed. For the most recent quarter, the company generated $1.39 billion in net cash from operations. That's up 47% from $943 million a year ago.

The company said operating cash flow increased 48% to $4.98 billion for the trailing 12 months. This financed trailing 12-month capital expenditures of $4.59 billion. Amazon is now buying its offices rather than renting, and it's able to sustain larger fulfillment centers and cloud operations without debt.

Amazon is mainly a retailer, and a look at most retailers' books will give you agita. Amazon has about 10 cents of debt for every $1 in assets. The rates at Target and Wal-Mart are significantly higher. Failure, as in J.C. Penney , looks like it has more than 40 cents of long-term debt for every $1 in assets.

Now remember that for a retailer, Christmas is key. The day after Thanksgiving is called "Black Friday" because, traditionally, that's when retailers start to turn a profit, or get in the black.

Amazon's fourth quarters are no different. They tend to blow the doors off the previous periods. For this year's fourth quarter, Amazon is guiding toward anywhere from $23.5 billion and $26.5 billion in net sales, a wide range, compared with last year's $21.27 billion. Amazon usually finishes well ahead of its sales guidance.

On its conference call, Amazon executives detailed where the sales were coming from. Some $10.3 billion of sales were in North America, and there it earned an operating margin of 2.9%, which for a retailer is respectable.