UPDATED with closing stock price. Netflix shares dropped more than 10% Thursday, on heavy trading volume, as Wall Street analysts and investors took full measure of the streaming giant’s second-quarter subscriber buffering.
In the wake of Wednesday’s significant undershooting of its own estimates for subscriber growth, the stock closed at $325.21, its lowest level since mid-January. It has shed about 15% of its value in just the past week, as investors have become wary of increasing streaming competition and the loss of popular shows like Friends and The Office.
In the quarter — historically its weakest — the company saw U.S. subscription levels fall slightly (by about 100,000) in the first domestic downturn in eight years. Globally, Netflix badly undershot its forecast for 5 million new subscribers and a total of 155 million worldwide. Instead, it brought in 2.7 million new paid subscribers for a total of 151.6 million. Other fundamental metrics (revenue and earnings) came in on target, and executives assert that subscriptions would rise 7 million in the third quarter due to the strength of new shows like Stranger Things 3.
Many investors saw the earnings news as a good reason to take profits on a stock that has doubled in value in the past two years. Analysts were generally more measured in their reaction, with many longtime bulls pointing to the bigger picture and reaffirming their positive ratings on the stock.
Ben Swinburne of Morgan Stanley emphasized that now is not the time to overreact. “Did the world change in the last three months? We do not believe it did,” he wrote in a research note. If the second half of 2019 delivers on management promises, he added, it will mean one more year of record subscriber growth and a nearly double-digit rise in average revenue per user.
Tim Nollen of Macquarie Research pointed out that Netflix has missed on its quarterly subscriber guidance once a year for the past four years. “The magnitude of the miss this time appears more concerning in light of coming OTT competition from Disney, HBO/Warner, NBCU and Apple,” he wrote in a note to clients. While losing licensed programming isn’t likely to do much damage, in Nollen’s view, “we do expect consumers to jump on and off these services more frequently, which may lead to
more sub volatility over time, and which raises the stakes on producing and timing popular shows and marketing them effectively.”
Stop treating this like a tech company, Nollen urged investors. “Netflix is becoming more like a traditional media company that relies on its own content (plus in this case DTC distribution), and this means investors should increase their focus on revenue, earnings and cash flow,” he wrote. Macquarie continues to rate Netflix shares as “outperform.”
Todd Juenger of Bernstein Research, who also has an “outperform” rating on the stock, offered his reasoning for staying in the fold. “In fullness, does this [quarter] change our thesis or conviction? No. Does it make us more nervous? Of course,” he wrote in a note to clients. “Especially given the timing of Disney+ launch. We don’t think the Disney+ launch will have anything to do with Netflix’s success or failure. But if Netflix misses subs in the quarters after Disney+ launches, the market will make the correlation anyway, and we expect the downside effect on Netflix stock will be several times more than usual.”
Subscriber numbers may fluctuate, many analysts pointed out. But the secular industry change Netflix has initiated is not going anywhere. Michael Morris of Guggenheim, who took his turn as moderator of the company’s video earnings interview Wednesday after the numbers were released, reaffirmed his “buy” rating in a note early Thursday. “We remain positive on the company’s global, multi-year outlook given comments around the strength of scalable, globalized content and improving profitability,” he wrote. “We believe bulls remain focused on long-term subscriber penetration regardless of quarterly bear-focused subscriber fluctuations.”
The company will come under increasing scrutiny in the months to come. Disney+ is gearing up for its November launch, along with Apple TV+ in the fall, and WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and NBCUniversal’s new service in 2020.
“We believe the next three quarters are likely to be pivotal for the next phase of the Netflix story,” Kannan Venkateshwar of Barclays wrote in a research note asserting his “overweight” rating. “Another bad quarter will probably make it tough to make a pricing power argument but if the company is able to add more subs this year than last year and into Q1 ’20, there would be no credible bear case left in the story, in our view.”