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Netflix: Whitney Tilson further Details “Why he Hasn’t Lost his Mind”

October 28, 2011 | About:
1) We established a position in Netflix two days ago on the day the stock crashed 35%. Given our unsuccessful timing of being short this stock – a highly frustrating experience – it wasn’t easy to overcome the emotional baggage and think about Netflix with a fresh perspective, but we’ve concluded that it’s an excellent company and that the market has over-reacted to all of the recent negative news, thereby providing us the chance to own it at a cheap price.

Netflixtoday reminds us of BP 16 months ago (which was a huge winner for us): the company, its CEO and the stock are all universally hated right now, with endless headlines of furious customers and shareholders. We love situations like this – as long as we’re convinced that there’s a good company and a cheap stock once you cut through all of the noise.

And we do think Netflix is a good company – something we acknowledged when we were short it, but didn’t fully appreciate at the time. Once we did – we think it’s an excellent company – we covered. Here’s what we wrote in our article, Why We Covered Our Netflix Short, published on Feb. 9, 2011 (posted at:http://valueinvestingletter.com/why-we-covered-our-netflix-short.html):

…while we acknowledged in our December article that Netflix “offers a useful, attractively-priced service to customers, is growing like wildfire, is very well managed, and has a strong balance sheet,” we now believe that it is an even better business than we gave it credit for. The company has enormous momentum and substantial optionality (for example, international growth), and management is executing superbly.

Obviously the momentum has been broken due in large part to management not executing superbly, but we still think it’s an excellent company – and credit Reed Hastings for quickly acknowledging and fixing the Qwikster mistake.

We were short it primarily because of the extreme valuation of the stock – but now that it’s down nearly 75% from its peak less than four months ago, we think it’s downright cheap. We’re not going to publish another detailed write-up, but rather below is an article by Henry Blodget that captures many of the reasons we’re bullish and then we’ve added a few additional thoughts. Here are some excerpts from Blodget’s article – the part about what happened the last time Netflix fell 75% is particularly interesting and, we believe, relevant:

  • · Netflix appears to be just going through a product transition. Product transitions are often hell on margins and stock prices. But Netflix’s product transition is not about some new, future product that no one knows much about. Netflix’s new product, streaming, is already off to a very encouraging start. And it’s also, obviously, the future of content distribution.
  • · Netflix’s streaming business, its future, is already at a ~$2 billion revenue run-rate, with 21 million subscribers paying $8/month. This shows that consumers are excited about Netflix’s streaming product. The company isn’t betting itself on some future product that everyone might hate.
  • · At $75 a share, Netflix’s market cap is $4 billion, or 2X the revenue of its product of the future. Assuming one values the DVD business at zero — and it’s worth more than zero — this suggests that the market is valuing Netflix’s streaming business at 2X run-rate revenue. That seems like a pretty low valuation for a company and product that should have good growth prospects going forward.
…three months ago, let us recall, everyone thought exactly the opposite: They thought Reed Hastings was a genius.

And one of the reasons everyone thought Reed Hastings was a genius, by the way, was Reed Hastings’ demonstrated willingness and ability to suffer short-term pain in exchange for presumed long-term gain.

How did everyone learn that about Reed Hastings?

They learned that back in early 2004, when Reed Hastings slashed Netflix’s prices and ramped up marketing spending to compete with a new DVD service from Blockbuster that many people thought was going to destroy Netflix.

Reed Hastings’ price cuts and spending increases did not go over well with Netflix’s shareholders. In fact, as you can see in the chart below, Netflix’s stock fell even more then than it has now: 75%+

But Reed Hastings was right. The company that was supposed to kill him, Blockbuster, went bust. And Netflix’s stock went on to soar 30X from the 2005 low.

Now, thanks to the stumbles of the past few months, everyone thinks Reed Hastings is a bonehead again.

And maybe, this time, Reed Hastings will turn out to be a bonehead.

But this observer, anyway, is not going to be betting against him. Especially because Reed Hastings has already demonstrated his ability to bet the company and be right. And because Netflix’s future — streaming over the Internet instead of cable networks — already looks to be a pretty good and pretty big business.

In addition to Blodget’s points, we’d add the following:

  • · With 23.8 million subscribers (excluding 1.5 million international ones) and a marketcapof $4.36 billion, Netflix is being valued at $183/subscriber, a very low figure relative to other media companies.
  • · Its shrunken market cap means that Netflix would be a bite-sized acquisition for any number of much larger companies like Apple ($376B market cap), Google ($193B), Amazon ($94B), Comcast ($68B), or Disney ($67B). We don’t think an acquisition is likely, but it probably puts a floor under the stock.
  • · By all accounts, steaming usage is growing very rapidly – 30-40% annually we’d guess. It seems likely that Netflix will get the lion’s share of this because there are no meaningful competitors. A key pillar of our short thesis was the rapid emergence of numerous competitors, but it just hasn’t happened. Hulu Plus, which is owned in part by Comcast and Disney, just passed the one million paying subscriber mark, not even 5% of Netflix’s level. Amazon is offering free streaming videos to Amazon Prime members and boasted in its recent earnings release of a library of “more than 12,000 movies and TV shows from partners such as CBS, FOX, PBS, NBCUniversal, Sony, Warner Bros., and many more,” but Netflix in its earnings release said “we have not seen much usage of Amazon Prime in our research.” If Comcast, Disney or Amazon wanted to get serious about this nascent market, it would be much easier and less costly to just buy Netflix.
  • · This is a really rough number, but we think Netflix should eventually be able to earn $5-6 of contribution profit per customer per month (a bit less than half of average revenue of approximately $12.50) if – and this is a big if – it can grow its subscriber base meaningfully over time. This translates into $1.3-$1.7 billion of contribution profit (again, excluding Netflix’s nascent international operations).
  • · We think Netflix was smart to raise its price – our only critique is how Reed Hastings communicated it. Had he done a better job explaining it, perhaps fewer customers would be so furious. It might not be too late to send out a letter like this one:


Dear Netflix subscribers,

I understand that many of you are upset by our recent price increase. We didn’t want to do it, but it was necessary. Allow me to explain…

For many years, we had only the DVD-by-mail service and made a reasonable profit charging $9.99/month (for our basic plan). We knew, however, that the future lay in streaming: it’s obviously far better to click a few buttons and watch a movie immediately rather than have to wait for it to come in the mail and then have to mail it back.

But streaming developed slowly thanks to technological barriers (which thankfully are falling rapidly) and the difficulty of licensing content (which remains difficult and expensive). In the early days of our streaming service, it wasn’t a great product: few of our customers had the internet bandwidth to download movies quickly and in high definition, and our content library was very limited. Thus, we gave it away to all of our subscribers, and this worked beautifully for a number of years: millions of our existing subscribers began using streaming and millions more signed up for Netflix to access our convenient streaming library of over 15,000 titles.

But the overwhelming popularity of our streaming service created a dilemma: our subscribers wanted more and more streaming content, but unlike DVDs, where we can simply buy a DVD and send it again and again to our customers, with streaming the law requires that we negotiate licensing deals with the content owners. Not surprisingly, seeing our millions of customers and understanding that streaming is the future, they began to demand higher and higher prices for their content. We don’t begrudge them, but this dramatically increases our costs if we want to make available to our subscribers the most popular movies and TV shows (which we do!). Meanwhile, the costs to provide our DVD-by-mail service certainly weren’t going down. Thus, we had no choice but to charge separately for our two services.

I think $7.99/month for unlimited streaming or unlimited DVD rentals is a bargain – we just can’t afford to provide both for that price. I hope you understand.

Note that the price increase only affected subscribers who were getting both the streaming and DVD services (they were paying $9.99 and now have to pay $7.99 for each service or $15.98, a 60% price increase). Streaming-only and DVD-only customers didn’t see a price hike and these subscriber numbers are growing quickly, especially the streaming-only, which is the future of the company. Based on the company’s guidance and our own estimates, we think that the number of streaming-only customers will rise 29% from 9.9 million at the end of Q3 to 12.8 million at the end of Q4, due to both new subscribers as well as current streaming and DVD customers dropping the DVD portion. The net result is that the total number of subscribers will remain roughly flat in Q4, but the mix will shift to more streaming and fewer DVD customers (who will be far more profitable, thanks to the price hike). We think these trends bode well for the company over time.

Finally, as background:

2) I was the guest host for an hour yesterday on CNBC’s Fast Money Halftime Report. Here are three clips:



About the author:

Jacob Wolinsky
My investment ideas have been inspired by many of value investors including Benjamin Graham, Charles Royce, John Neff, Joel Greenblatt, Peter Lynch, Seth Klarman,Martin Whitman and Bruce Greenwald. .I live with my wife and daughter in Monsey, NY. I can be contacted jacobwolinsky(AT)gmail.com and my blog is www.valuewalk.com

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Rating: 3.1/5 (10 votes)

Comments

lancefiasco
Lancefiasco - 2 years ago
Does this man have ANY concept of history?

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