Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. are racing to prove to investors that they can be “profitable,” so expect even more cuts and made-up metrics on the road ahead.
When the two ride-hailing companies reported earnings this week, Lyft
managed to show positive adjusted Ebitda results, a longstanding goal, thanks to immense cost-cutting. Uber
reported a steeper adjusted net loss than Wall Street had expected for the second quarter, while still promising to show green on its balance sheet — but also on an adjusted-Ebitda basis by the end of the year.
While both companies continue to tell investors that reaching that goal shows “profitability,” it most certainly does not — the ride-hailing companies have continued to prove that their business is not profitable and most likely will not be as currently constructed. Both companies demonstrated their expensive issues with their recent results, even as they continue to fight to keep their drivers around the world as independent contractors to avoid the ever increasing costs of having employees.
Uber and Lyft have been spending heartily to attract more drivers lately as the delta variant of COVID-19 spreads. In early April, Uber unveiled a plan to spend $250 million to lure drivers back to the platform by giving them bonuses, as the pandemic seemed as if it were starting to ease up. Lyft said in its conference call that it spent $375 million in incentives that it classified as “contra revenue,” and it expects that the “contra revenue” will exceed $376 million in the third quarter.
“No one can predict what’s going to happen with delta going forward,” Uber Chief Executive Dara Khosrowshahi told analysts when asked about its impact on the ride-hailing business. “But so far, we’re hedged and the trends that we’re seeing are pretty good.”
Uber is hedged with its Uber Eats business, which saw a huge surge of growth during the pandemic delivering restaurant meals to consumers while the rides business slowed down, but that business also has not shown itself to be profitable. Lyft does not have such a large additional business, and its stock tumbled after its earnings Tuesday over investor jitters about its outlook.
These types of costs will not disappear once the pandemic calms down. For example, the state of California is going to require nearly all ride-sharing vehicles to be electric by 2030, raising the huge question of who is going to pay for that transition, since drivers own their own cars. The federal government has its eyes on the practices of the gig economy, and could force changes that will increase costs, while Uber and Lyft tout a “third way” that they have proved in California will also require higher costs.
It would appear that the only way these companies will be able to show any profit figure, no matter how far from actual net income, is to cut. Last year, at the height of the pandemic, both companies shed jobs as part of their cost slashing. Uber cut about 6,700 jobs and Lyft laid off 1,000 employees, furloughing an additional 288. Uber has also been excising money-losing businesses, such as the divestiture of its self-driving unit.
Uber actually showed its second quarter of GAAP profitability as a public company Thursday, and for the second time, it was because of a paper gain on its investment in Chinese rival Didi Global Inc.
That investment added a whopping $1.4 billion to the balance sheet because Uber valued it on June 30, just after an initial public offering that valued Didi highly but before actions by China took the shares down more than 50%.
No matter how many paper gains recorded or cuts the companies make — and expect Uber to announce more ahead of its must-prove fourth-quarter results — or costs they try to shove onto their gig workers, including car ownership, neither Lyft nor Uber look to be any closer to actual GAAP profitability.
Uber and Lyft stocks are discounted, both lower than what they charged in their respective 2019 initial public offerings: Uber is closer to its $45 IPO price, closing at $43.07 on Thursday, while Lyft is trading about 33% lower than its IPO price.
After two-plus years as public companies that each reap billions of dollars in revenue with popular services for consumers, one might assume that Uber and Lyft might be closer to actual profitability. The lower stock prices give investors a potential opportunity to buy in, but if you do, don’t expect to see actual profit anytime soon.
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that Uber’s second-quarter losses were on an adjusted basis.