Uber revenue growth slows, losses persist as 2019 IPO draws near

The Uber Technologies Inc. car service application is displayed for a photograph on an Apple Inc. iPhone. (Bloomberg pic)

SAN FRANCISCO: Uber Technologies Inc.’s revenue growth slowed and losses persisted in the fourth quarter, casting a possible shadow over the ride-hailing giant as it prepares for a public offering this year.

Losses were down 15% for the full year over 2017, but still reached an adjusted US$1.8 billion. That could pose a challenge to investors trying to figure out Uber’s value in the public markets. Last year, bankers vying to lead the company’s initial public offering told Uber the market could value it at US$120 billion. News that the company is still burning through more than US$1 billion annually may give some investors pause.

Like many unicorns, San Francisco-based Uber is emphasising growth over profits. The company is investing aggressively in food delivery, logistics, electric bikes and self-driving cars. Last year, Uber bought Jump Bikes to help with its new mobility efforts, and it has a US$1 billion budget for such projects this year.

Despite those investments, in the fourth quarter sales didn’t grow as fast as they have in the past. Of the US$11.4 billion in net revenue the company generated in 2018, US$3 billion came in the last three months of the year, up only 2% from the previous quarter. That puts the company’s year-over-year quarterly growth rate at 25%. That’s high by many standards, but significantly lower than Uber’s third quarter year-over-year growth of 38% — a growth rate that was itself only about half the rate of six months prior.

As it released the numbers, Uber touted the rising use of its app around the world. “Last year was our strongest yet, and Q4 set another record for engagement on our platform,” Uber Chief Financial Officer Nelson Chai said in a statement. “In 2018, our ridesharing business maintained category leadership in all regions we serve.”

Chai also said the company’s trucking business, Uber Freight, had “gained exciting traction in the US” and that its fast-growing food service, Uber Eats, “became the largest online food delivery business outside of China, based on gross bookings.”

While the data provides a window into Uber’s operations, there are still plenty of ways to look at Uber’s massive cash burn, and some financial details are still opaque. For example, Uber had a tax windfall in the fourth quarter that it didn’t explain, but that was responsible for reducing its fourth quarter losses from US$1.2 billion to US$865 million, according to generally accepted accounting standards.

A worrying sign for investors scrutinising the company’s financials is that Uber’s share of money from customer payments has been shrinking. The company generated US$50.2 billion in gross bookings in 2018. But in Latin America, Uber is dropping its fees on drivers in order to fend off competitors. And rides in the US have been less profitable than Uber expected thanks to sustained competition with competitor Lyft Inc. Of course, its margins would improve if Uber begins to take a larger share of fares.

Because the company is private, it’s not required to release financial information. However, Uber started releasing some numbers in April 2017, after years of leaks. It was an unusual move for a startup, even one that tends to do things its own way. Uber provided the unaudited financials to Bloomberg and other reporters this quarter.

San Francisco-based Uber privately filed for a public offering with the Securities and Exchange Commission in November, people familiar with the matter have said. More recently, Uber received initial feedback from the SEC on its confidential prospectus, one person said.

Steep losses are nothing new for the company. Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi stepped into the top job more than 17 months ago as the startup was tearing through money. At the time, investors expected Khosrowshahi would focus on stemming losses. Instead, he has prioritised fending off rivals like Lyft and investing in areas of growth like food delivery.

On the public markets, Uber investors will have to try to break down Uber’s financials to estimate when its different business units can become profitable. Uber didn’t separate its business units in the numbers provided to Bloomberg. Uber adjusted for the sale of its Russian and South East Asian operations in some of its financials to reflect the current state of its business, though the impact was minor.