Thereat King Robert muttered scornfully,
“‘T is well that such seditious words are sung
Only by priests and in the Latin tongue;
For unto priests and people be it known,
There is no power can push me from my throne!”The Sicilian’s Tale: King Robert of Sicily, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1893)
Man in Black: You guessed wrong.
Vizzini (Laughing): You only think I guessed wrong! That’s what’s so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is “Never get involved a land war in Asia.” But only slightly less well know is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!” (Vizzini laughs uproariously and then suddenly keels over, dead)The Princess Bride (1987)
Somewhere along the line, authors and filmmakers decided they would imbue Sicilians with the fatal flaw of pride. It’s always struck me as a bit odd, and not just because every Sicilian I’ve ever met has been just a lovely person. It’s also odd because, if anything, Sicily has served to thwart the hubris of great powers! This covers not least the Athenians, who probably did more to lose their grasp on imperial ambitions in the failed siege of Syracuse than anywhere else.
But for all the foolish arrogance Wadsworth’s King Robert could muster, and for all the brazen overconfidence Wallace Shawn’s brilliant turn as Vizzini might convey, neither would, I think, be capable of answering this:
What the hell was Amazon thinking?
Don’t get me wrong. I love the product. America loves the product. For good reason. Jeff Bezos’s little dream has made the lives of everyday Americans much simpler, and the brokerage accounts of investing Americans much larger. I have just as many Amazon boxes in my garage as you, people. But when both Tucker Carlson and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez find common cause against you, you’ve either done something inconceivably stupid or profoundly good. Hint: in this case, it’s the former.
Amazon is a trillion dollar company – well, was a trillion dollar company, but what’s a couple hundred billion dollars between friends? The incentives it gained through negotiations with its new HQ cities are a pittance, not just in comparison to the market capitalization or revenue of the company, but relative to the extent to which they put both of those things at risk through this misadventure.
How? Well, let’s just walk through it.
There are – without much exaggeration – only two things that Amazon has to do to keep its position: (1) grow a lot and (2) not attract the attention of government officials to the fact that it has the ability to squeeze or directly compete with any supplier, any vendor, any distributor, and any shipping company whenever it damn well pleases, or the fact that we’re not too far away from being able to say that they have the power to do the same to their customers, even if they largely haven’t chosen to exercise that power. Yet.
Let’s say that we practice what preach here, and we presume good faith and intentions. Let’s assume that the HQ2 process wasn’t just a bold information-gathering expedition to set the stage for future concessions and negotiations from local governments across the country. Let’s assume that the split HQ wasn’t a bait-and-switch ruse designed to yield the benefits of a full HQ for half the commitment from Amazon. Even then, if you are Amazon, the world that exists today looks like this:
- The President of the United States sees you as a political enemy, and thinks the newspaper your founder owns is Fake News.
- You made the governors of a couple dozen states and mayors and administrators of 236 cities and regions across North America look foolish.
- You did the same to thousands of community leaders, lawyers, political organizers and ambitious politicians who participated in the process.
- You aligned practically all facets of both the political right and political left – including the extreme wings – to join together to criticize your strategy as transparent cronyism, whatever your intentions.
- You have made it not only possible, but desirable for politicians and bureaucrats to pursue political power by making an example out of your perceived excess.
I’d spin you the old pigs and hogs yarn here, but around these parts, we’ve got a better word: coyotes. You stood at the edge of the woods, and when America shook its jar of pennies, you stared right back and howled. I’m sure there are some folks in Seattle who are counting the billions they ‘made’ for the company and shareholders through this process and these negotiations, but they are wrong. In one fell swoop, it went from being almost politically impossible not to submit a bid for the HQ, to being a political risk to been seen to partner with Amazon. At least for a while.
That is what we mean by a metagame failure.
Still, Amazon is a trillion dollar company. We’ve all still got to do our Christmas shopping, and Trumpy Bear is eligible for Prime delivery, y’all. Americans – and investors – have short memories, and for the most part, the market seems to be yawning about all this. If history is any guide, they’re probably right. Even with all I’ve said, I don’t know that any investor’s mean long-term expectation ought to shift an inch. But in a probabilistic sense, has this changed the risks to the company? Is it likely to change narratives around the company going forward?
Note: In case you were wondering, we don’t own stocks of individual companies (long or short). We don’t allow it.