For the media business, today’s Martin Luther King birthday holiday — which kept the stock markets closed — is the calm before a possible storm tomorrow: Netflix execs will disclose Q4 earnings after the market closes, and have their first major opportunity to publicly discuss the company’s prospects after its massive expansion into 130 countries two weeks ago.
Investors wonder whether Netflix has bitten off more than it can chew. Although Netflix was the top performing major stock of 2015, the price has pretty much tread water since August, and fallen 9% so far in 2016.
It remains one of the most controversial stocks: At Friday’s closing price of $104.04 it trades for an astronomical 277 times its trailing earnings. Where will it go this year? Guggenheim Partners’ Michael Morris says $160. Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter says $40.
No wonder Netflix’ results are so widely watched, and scrutinized. The Wall Street consensus is that tomorrow’s Q4 report will show $1.83 billion in revenues, up 40% from the period last year, with earnings of just 2 cents a share, down from a dime.
But that’s just part of the story. Investors also want to know:
What’s up with domestic subscription growth? Netflix bulls say that it’s building a huge, loyal fan base that will pay off later, justifying the faith of those who look past the skimpy earnings it generates now.
Netflix has already set a Q4 bar for itself: It told investors in October to expect to see the number of domestic streaming subs grow by 1.65 million in the three-month period (a 3.8% increase) to 44.8 million. That represents a slowdown from the last three months of 2014 when the domestic sub number increased by 1.90 million (5.1%).
Remember, though, that the latest quarter included a $1 a month price increase, announced in October, for its Standard service (to $9.99). If the company beats the domestic sub forecast for Q4, then it would suggest that customers still consider Netflix to be a bargain — even as rival services from Amazon, Hulu, and HBO Go become more compelling.
Price elasticity is “a core tenet of our [bullish] thesis” says Nomura’s Anthony DiClemente — who projects the $1 price increase could lift this year’s earnings per share by $1.52.
Investors probably will take it badly if Netflix’s sub number disappoints. Many felt let down in October when it disclosed that it missed its Q3 projection. CEO Reed Hastings and CFO David Wells cited “higher-than-expected involuntary churn (inability to collect), which we believe was driven in part by the ongoing transition to chip-based credit and debit cards.”
The Street not only wants a strong number for Q4: It also expects an optimistic forecast for the current quarter. Analysts believe that the number of domestic subs will grow by nearly 2.1 million in Q1.
How much will Netflix lose from its international expansion? Netflix told investors to expect a $117 million Q4 loss on its global streaming business, a 48% increase from the period last year, to account for the investments it made for the September launch in Japan and October expansion into Spain, Portugal and Italy.
Now they’ll also want to know how much the losses will increase with Netflix’s move this month into 130 countries including Vietnam, India, Nigeria, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Turkey, and Indonesia?
In addition to the extra expenses, the changes increase Netflix’s vulnerability to other countries’ weakening exchange rates against the strong dollar. Credit Suisse’s Stephen Ju expects to see a 9% “headwinds” when 2016 earnings are compared to 2015’s.
Don’t be surprised if some analysts want more details on tomorrow’s call.
Netflix told Wall Street, after its recent expansion news, that it projects a $120 million international loss in Q1 — with similar results in the remaining three quarters. It expects to break even in most markets until it begins to see big profits in 2017.
In line with that, Drexel Hamilton’s Tony Wible forecasts that Netflix will “incur $475 million of net loss in 2016” — adding that “this will be the peak.”
He warns, though, that his analysis could change if some overseas governments try to protect local or state-owned media — for example by restricting content, regulating Netflix, or imposing higher taxes. Netflix’s expansion “may not sit well with some leaders and could lead to restrictions or incremental costs that impede [its] growth prospects. While this may seem like a stretch we have seen established companies lobby for restrictions on disruptive technologies (e.g. WhatsApp, Uber, etc).”
Still, RBC Capital Markets’ Mark Mahaney remains optimistic, noting that “Netflix has already proven its value proposition in Latin America and in Western Europe” — and now appears to be doing well in Japan.
The company recently said that it saw big numbers for Bill Murray’s A Very Murray Christmas, original series including Daredevil, Narcos, and Jessica Jones, and its original movie Beasts Of No Nation.