Ordinarily, there is nothing wrong with Groupon’s core business model. Indeed, the company is a technology leader to some small businesses and local retailers who lack the finances or tech exposures needed for them to have online presence, but there has always been something related to scam about the company that prevented its basic business model taking root in strong business practices. My concerns about Groupon are as follows:
1. Poor risk management in running deals and weak internal controls: on what figures does Groupon center its refund reserves? Yes, the company keeps refund reserves but what is its size and how was that calculated? It was because of Groupon’s poor risk assessment and management that the company had to restate its fourth quarter earnings last March. In fact, Groupon has not been able to track the number of its outstanding Groupon values, which is why I think the company has weaknesses in its internal control. An analyst gave an estimate of the refund rates of Groupon to be in excess of about 40 percent year-over-year, which means the financials the company has been reporting over the years must have been laden with utmost intentional secrecy. I leave you to draw your conclusion on what you think is the true financial strength of Groupon!
2. Overly generous ‘’Groupon promise’’ which translates into higher refund rates: perhaps because the company wants to impress its customers with the certainty of refunds where necessary, it has been granting overly generous refund promises that if implemented will make nonsense out of its sales records. Of course, the financial reports of the company aren’t showing much of that. Its March quarter result says the company has enough cash and no debt, which looks good on paper, but I’m skeptical about it, not because I want Groupon to fold up, but because I strongly feel the company is being economical with the truth.
3. Deliberate maintaining of accounting records full of irregularities: it’s no longer news that Groupon has been keeping irregular accounting records that often require restatement after each quarter release. News of its recent return-loss provisions has sustained the downward trend of its stock price from $18 per share to about $7 presently.
4. Running medical deals that require special qualifications, but Groupon has no means to determine who is medically qualified and who is not before selling. Groupon runs medical deals that require specific qualification but the company isn’t able to determine who is qualified before making sales. The effect of this is that its refund rates will increase, creating greater risk for its cash flow on the long run if nothing is done to address the trend. Often, Groupon also runs deals such as in travel where important facts are kept away from customers, or it runs travel deals without requesting customers to pre-arrange their travel dates and confirm availability at the time of purchase. This is one of the important procedures that helps major travel providers like Expedia (EXPE), Travelocity, Priceline (PCLN) keep their customers. The effect of the failure of Groupon to include this procedure encourages consumers to ask for refunds if after some months they find that they can’t use the Groupon deal again.
I know that emotions and biases often play a role in investing but in my opinion, investors should always try to be curious and watchful in matters concerning investing in common stocks. Groupon and its tech competitor, Facebook (FB) are two stocks with common fate. Investors must have lost close to $15 billion and $34 billion in Groupon and Facebook respectively after the initial public offerings of the two tech companies. I strongly believe that many investors were really unaware of the huge risks inherent in these companies when they bought the common stocks. I know that Groupon will be making its next financials public August 13 but I’m short on Groupon until the company reverses all its negatives – if it’s able to.