All eyes on Wall Street are on Netflix today following its startlingly strong Q4 earnings report last night. Shares are up about 17% in early trading — and touched an all-time high of $395.63 — wiping out the 9.4% retreat so far in 2014 for last year’s highest appreciating stock. But while company bulls high-five each other, I’m more interested in how bears deal with the upbeat news. One of the sharpest, Bernstein Research’s Carlos Kirjner (with an “underperform” rating on Netflix), observes this morning that the higher-than-expected growth in domestic streaming subscribers came at a cost: Netflix spent 34% more to market that business than it did in the same quarter last year. “In other words, Netflix has had to pay significantly more per net add, either because it needed more gross adds to offset churn of a growing base, or because it had to spend more in advertising and promotions. Or both.” That could be worrisome because “the key question” for Netflix investors is whether it can boost revenues by raising its $7.99 monthly subscription price without driving customers away. “Our view is that the answer to this question is no,” which was reinforced by CEO Reed Hastings’ “cautious and noncommittal commentary” on pricing. Kirjner easily has the funniest line of the day (admittedly not a high bar for the analyst community) with a reference to Hastings’ jab at HBO chief Richard Plepler for saying in a recent interview that he’s indifferent if HBO GO users share their password. Kirjner liked that “better than Netflix’s discussion of the S-curve adoption of Netflix’s service, as the password discussion seemed to be more factual.”
Another bear, Wedbush Securities’ Michael Pachter (with an “underperform” on Netflix), says that execs appeared to be “almost naively unconcerned” about a federal appeals court decision that remanded the FCC’s net neutrality rules. Broadband providers, especially cable operators who might feel threatened by the streaming service, “will be unconcerned about charging Netflix a nominal amount” to provide unlimited and unthrottled transmissions of its programming. At just a penny a GB used “we estimate Netflix would be required to pay approximately $360 million per year, two-thirds of 2014 consensus EBITDA [cash flow].”
Other analysts who are neutral about prospects for Netflix stock raised additional concerns. MoffettNathanson Research’s Michael Nathanson says that “it remains difficult to figure out the ultimate size and value of Netflix’s international opportunity” due to the company’s “undisclosed new market entries, minimal transparency and continual reinvestment.” And Nomura Securities’ Anthony DiClemente warned that sub growth could slow in Q2 which compares to last year, when it generated a lot of buzz with the release of Arrested Development. He also notes that Netflix “continues to roughly double its spend on original content each year, and there is nothing to suggest that non-originals spending will slow.”
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.