Netflix has lost about $12 billion in market value today, the first day of trading since the abrupt ouster of a top executive over the use of a racial epithet.
Jonathan Friedland exited the company as communications chief Friday after a second instance of his use of a racial slur was revealed. The ignominious end to his Netflix career was not exactly swept under the rug by an eye-opening memo to employees from CEO and founder Reed Hastings, which suggested larger problems in the company’s culture.
Hastings wrote that his “privilege” led him to “intellectualize or otherwise minimize race issues like this.”
For Monday’s session, Netflix shares dropped about 6.5%, closing at $384.48. It was the stock’s biggest single-day drop since 2016, when share prices swooned after the company said it would not renew an agreement with the cable network Epix (and lose popular movies including The Hunger Games). Trading volume came in at twice the normal level. Media shares overall were in retreat as major stock indices shed more than 1% each, though the damage was far worse for the streaming giant.
Netflix’s company’s stock has been on a tear in recent months, with blockbuster quarterly earnings reports stoking unbridled optimism about the company’s trajectory. Earlier this month, Goldman Sachs increased its 12-month price target to $490, leading to multiple record-setting new highs for the stock.
The correlation between the events surrounding Friedland’s departure and the fall of the stock is not certain. Wall Street analysts do not generally try to interpret how racial or sociological currents running through organizations and corporate America may affect share prices. Also, during a year in which Netflix stock has risen 100%, compared with a 7% uptick for the Nasdaq and no gain for the S&P 500, the down day could be nothing more than profit-taking.
Netflix did not respond to a request for comment.
The stock downturn comes during a time of heightened sensitivity for all public companies. Intel shares, for example, have shed nearly 4% since Thursday. That was when the company’s CEO, Brian Krzanich, resigned suddenly after news surfaced of a consensual and since-concluded affair with an employee. While the conduct violated Intel policy, the policy would likely not have existed a generation ago.
For Netflix, Friedland’s comments, made months before his ultimate dismissal, follow questions raised by major institutional investors about the composition of Netflix’s board and its lack of racial diversity.
The Service Employees International Union and The California State Teachers’ Retirement System raised the issue in 2017 in a shareholder proposal that would have amended Netflix’s bylaws to change how directors are elected.
“Unlike 81% of its peers in the S&P 500, Netflix does not have any racial or ethnic diversity on its board,” wrote SEIU Chief Financial Officer Bill Dempsey and CalsTrs director Anne Sheehan. “Furthermore, despite Netflix’s global reach, the board does not have a single member based outside the west coast of the U.S.”
Earlier this year, Netflix named its named its first African American director, former U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice. The 10 other board members are Caucasian.
The California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the New York City Pension Funds together supported a non-binding proposal this year that would have opened up the director nominating process. Together, the funds have $544 billion in assets under management and are long-term shareholders in Netflix, with some 1.5 million shares.
The funds argued, in a letter to other shareholders, that Netflix has repeatedly resisted such a measure, that would provide greater accountability in the boardroom.
“Similar proposals have received support from a majority of the voting shares in 2015, 2016 and 2017,” wrote CalPERS Investment Office director Simiso Nzima and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer. “But the board remains opposed to the request, even after strong shareholder support for multiple years.”
As recently as this March, Hastings said he saw no need to incorporate “inclusion riders” into contracts, which would result in more diverse cast and crews.
“We’re not so big on doing everything through agreements,” Hastings was quoted by USA Today as saying during a March press briefing. “We’re trying to do things creatively.”
Netflix has received credit for promoting a diversity of actors, writers and directors — indeed, it touted that record in a commercial that aired during the BET Awards. The company reports that African Americans make up just 4% of staff and leadership; Latinos comprise 6% of staff and leadership and Asian Americans account for 24%.