Uber racked up losses in attempt to ease driver shortage

Uber said the loss will be less than US$100 million in the third quarter.
Uber said the loss will be less than US$100 million in the third quarter.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SAN FRANCISCO (BLOOMBERG) - Uber Technologies spent heavily to lure drivers back in the second quarter, which resulted in a wider loss than expected and raises doubts about the reliability of its labour model in the long term. Its shares declined 8 per cent in extended trading on Wednesday (Aug 4).

The loss before interest, tax and other expenses was US$509 million (S$687.9 million) in the period that ended in June, Uber said in a statement on Wednesday. That is wider than the prior quarter but narrower than a year earlier. Analysts expected a loss of US$325 million, according to an average of analysts' estimates compiled by Bloomberg.

Uber said the loss will be less than US$100 million in the third quarter and that gross bookings will be US$22 billion to US$24 billion. The forecast is about in line with analysts' estimates. Uber cautioned that a wider outbreak of the Delta variant of the coronavirus could change the results.

"We invested in recovery by investing in drivers, and we made strong progress," Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi said in a statement.

Challenges in the ride-hailing business persist. Many drivers quit earlier in the pandemic when demand evaporated and over concerns for their own health. In recent months, vaccines have brought riders back, but the return of workers has not kept pace. Uber said in April it would spend US$250 million to get more drivers on the road by doling out bonuses and other incentives. Now, the spread of the Delta variant creates a new, unpredictable problem for the transportation business.

Expectations for Uber were already lessened by Wednesday after Lyft, the second-largest US ride-hailing company, reported a weak forecast for the third quarter. Both stocks declined during trading. Lyft did prove, however, that its business can be profitable, at least when overlooking stock-based compensation and other costs. Lyft turned its first adjusted profit in the second quarter. Uber said it will generate a quarterly adjusted profit by the end of the year.

Uber has been using the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to expand further beyond rides. The San Francisco-based company placed a big bet on freight with the US$2.25 billion purchase of Transplace last month. It also moved into grocery and alcohol delivery through acquisitions, added package delivery and struck a partnership with GoPuff to ferry convenience store items.

"What we're looking for is continued expansion beyond food," said JMP Securities analyst Ron Josey. "The battleground that's developing is to get anything delivered within an hour or two."

Uber has been delivering meals from restaurants since 2014, but the pandemic dramatically accelerated growth. Gross bookings from delivery orders in the second quarter nearly doubled from the same period last year to US$12.9 billion. Growth was muted compared with the first quarter. "The hyper growth is likely over," Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Mandeep Singh wrote last month.

Second-quarter sales doubled from a year earlier to US$3.93 billion, beating analysts' estimates. The number of people using an Uber service was 101 million in the second quarter, in line with estimates.

Uber posted its first net profit as a public company in the second quarter. Income of US$1.1 billion was driven in large part by Uber's stock in Didi Global, China's largest ride-hailing company, which went public in June. Since then, the shares have declined 30 per cent after Beijing launched a probe into the company and removed Didi from Chinese app stores.

Mr Khosrowshahi said Uber will consider selling Didi shares or other holdings, which are valued at nearly US$15 billion and also include South-east Asia's Grab Holdings and Joby Aviation. He singled out Didi as more of a financial interest than a strategic one.

"We don't intend to run an investment firm, but we have sufficient liquidity to ensure that we have the flexibility to maintain those positions," Mr Khosrowshahi said in a conference call with analysts.