Will ride-hailing profits ever come?

Uber and Lyft lost a lot of money in 2020. That’s not a surprise, as COVID-19 caused many ride-hailing markets to freeze, limiting demand for folks moving around. To combat the declines in their traditional businesses, Uber continued its push into consumer delivery, while Lyft announced a push into business-to-business logistics.

But the decline in demand harmed both companies. We can see that in their full-year numbers. Uber’s revenue fell from $13 billion in 2019 to $11.1 billion in 2020. Lyft’s fell from $3.6 billion in 2019 to a far-smaller $2.4 billion in 2020.

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But Uber and Lyft are excited that they will reach adjusted profitability, measured as earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, amortization and even more stuff stripped out, by the fourth quarter of this year.

Ride-hailing profits have long felt similar to self-driving revenues: just a bit over the horizon. But after the year from hell, Uber and Lyft are pretty damn certain that their highly adjusted profit dreams are going to come through.

This morning, let’s unpack their latest numbers to see if what the two companies are dangling in front of investors is worth desiring. Along the way we’ll talk BS metrics and how firing a lot of people can cut your cost base.


Using normal accounting rules, Uber lost $6.77 billion in 2020, an improvement from its 2019 loss of $8.51 billion. However, if you lean on Uber’s definition of adjusted EBITDA, its 2019 and 2020 losses fall to $2.73 billion and $2.53 billion, respectively.

So what is this magic wand Uber is waving to make billions of dollars worth of red ink go away? Let’s hear from the company itself:

We define Adjusted EBITDA as net income (loss), excluding (i) income (loss) from discontinued operations, net of income taxes, (ii) net income (loss) attributable to non-controlling interests, net of tax, (iii) provision for (benefit from) income taxes, (iv) income (loss) from equity method investments, (v) interest expense, (vi) other income (expense), net, (vii) depreciation and amortization, (viii) stock-based compensation expense, (ix) certain legal, tax, and regulatory reserve changes and settlements, (x) goodwill and asset impairments/loss on sale of assets, (xi) acquisition and financing related expenses, (xii) restructuring and related charges and (xiii) other items not indicative of our ongoing operating performance, including COVID-19 response initiative related payments for financial assistance to Drivers personally impacted by COVID-19, the cost of personal protective equipment distributed to Drivers, Driver reimbursement for their cost of purchasing personal protective equipment, the costs related to free rides and food deliveries to healthcare workers, seniors, and others in need as well as charitable donations.

Er, hot damn. I can’t recall ever seeing an adjusted EBITDA definition with 12 different categories of exclusion. But, it’s what Uber is focused on as reaching positive adjusted EBITDA is key to its current pitch to investors.

Indeed, here’s the company’s CFO in its most recent earnings call, discussing its recent performance:

We remain on track to turn the EBITDA profitable in 2021, and we are confident that Uber can deliver sustained strong top-line growth as we move past the pandemic.

So, if investors get what Uber promises, they will get an unprofitable company at the end of 2021, albeit one that, if you strip out a dozen categories of expense, is no longer running in the red. This, from a company worth north of $112 billion, feels like a very small promise.

And yet Uber shares have quadrupled from their pandemic lows, during which they fell under the $15 mark. Today Uber is worth more than $60 per share, despite shrinking last year and projecting years of losses (real), and possibly some (fake) profits later in the year.

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