Netflix Part 2 - My Thoughts on Valuation
Updated: Jul 19, 2020
Please read disclaimer on my website - I am not providing a recommendation to buy or sell Netflix. I do not currently have a position in the shares or bonds of Netflix.
On February 14th, I posted an article on emorningcoffee.com entitled “Netflix, Part 1 – Riding the Wave”. That article covered the history, business and competitive position of Netflix. In this follow-up article, I now want to focus on valuation. This is particularly relevant at the moment because Netlix’s value has been well supported since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The stock closed on Thursday at over $439/share, just a touch off its record high. The graph below shows the amazing journey of Netflix shares since the company was listed, with the performance this year being particularly outstanding.
As I mentioned in the February 14th article, valuing Netflix is a difficult exercise because there are no pure streaming competitors to which we can compare to the company. Most established streamers, like Amazon Prime Video, as well as newer players like Apple TV+ and Disney Plus, are embedded in parent companies. Several other companies are planning to launch their streaming services only this year.
By investing increasingly in the development and production of its own programming over the last few years, Netflix has evolved from a streaming company into a broader media company. As a result, Netflix’s business model is converging with the more diverse businesses of many of its competitors, which have their own valuable legacy content and – in some cases – even own the infrastructure to distribute this content to users. A large and diverse content catalogue and / or owning the distribution infrastructure gives many of these media giants enormous power in terms of crafting their packages of content as well as the revenue model(s) depending on their target audience. The revenue models range from pure subscription services, like Netflix or Disney Plus, to “free” services, like YouTube, which are supported solely by advertising.
Netflix’s shares are rallying into the COVID-19 pandemic on the view – I presume – that people are in front of their screens more minutes each day during the virus “lock down”. Netflix is ideally positioned to benefit from this surge in screen time because of its large and geographically diverse existing subscriber base. In this article, I will discuss Netflix's stock price and valuation metrics, present a five year financial summary and analysis of the company's cash flows, discuss the competitive landscape, and lastly provide my conclusion on valuation.
Stock Price and Valuation Metrics
Summary valuation metrics for Netflix are contained in the table below.
The company’s shares are flirting with their all-time highs. Over the last two years, there have periodically been concerns about Netflix’s declining growth of new subscribers in the U.S. because the U.S. market offers substantially higher margins than the international markets for the company. It is this factor that has led the shares to decline on two occasions in the last two years to near $250/share. Nonetheless, the shares on each occasion have recovered. The current lock-down is fuelling positive speculation on Netflix’s subscriber growth as people spend more time at home in front of their televisions, computers, iPads or mobile phones. However, at this price level, the general view in the analyst community is that Netflix shares are expensive. The consensus price target is $375/share, well below the closing price yesterday. For reference, Netflix releases its 1Q2020 results next Tuesday (April 21st) at the close of the market.
Five-Year Financial Summary and Discussion of Cash Flows
The table below presents summary financial results for Netflix for the last five years.
As the table illustrates, the company has been profitable throughout the period, with revenues growing on average 48%/annum, and E.P.S. increasing a mouth-watering 96%/annum over this period. The share price has appreciated on average nearly 30%/annum.
Netflix is a subscription-only service, so it has no advertising, Video-on-Demand (“VoD”), or other streams that generate revenues. Netflix’s avenues for growth within their current business model are therefore somewhat limited to new subscriber growth and / or increases in monthly subscription fees. The fact that more subscribers are watching Netflix for more minutes each day during the pandemic does not enhance the company’s revenues, because customers pay a fixed monthly subscription cost not related to usage. However, if the company’s subscriber base is growing more strongly than expected due to pandemic-driven factors like higher unemployment, people working more from home, etc., then this is positive for Netflix’s revenues. Of course, this must be considered in the context of people having a plethora of choices for watching films, TV series, documentaries, and so on, and even more broadly, a wider choice of mediums and content competing for available screen time of consumers.
For example, the interest in COVID-19 piques people’s thirst for news so they probably spend more time watching news channels or streaming interviews from political leaders and health officials on a delayed basis, e.g. on YouTube. Another example of increased screen time is the migration of services during the lock-down. These can include things like do-it-at-home exercise classes, cooking classes, therapy and virtual AA meetings, etc., many of which are now offered on-line or in a virtual format which favours the likes of Instagram Live (Facebook), YouTube (Google) and increasingly Zoom, which allows a two-way interface. One trend favouring Netflix is that the company does not offer, and hence does not rely on, sports, which most certainly competes for viewer’s screen time (versus watching films, documentaries and TV series). These and other changes in consumer tastes and behaviours driven by the lock-down, including restrictions on social interaction, are undoubtedly increasing screen time for consumers. Concurrently, the competition amongst the traditional players (including Netflix) is increasing, and even social media is infringing on the traditional time available for watching films and TV series. It is simply hard to predict what the effects of all this will be on Netflix’s future revenues, although the analyst community remains very bullish on the top line.
On final revenue point is that Netflix has periodically in the past raised its monthly subscription cost which investors have viewed as net positive. In the U.S., Netflix offers plans for $8.99/month (“basic”, no HD), $12.99/month (“standard”, HD, 2 screens) and $15.99/month (“premium”, 4K, 4 users). The last price increase in the U.S. occurred in January 2019 and was $2/month for the standard service and $1/month for the premium service. Similar Netflix services in the U.K. (10 million subscribers) cost £5.99/month, £8.99/month and £11.99/month, respectively, with the last price increase occurring in June 2019. Analysts seem to feel that Netflix will not raise its subscription rates this year, but likely will do so in 2021 once the COVID-19 crisis passes. Netflix could also look to enhance revenues by taking a harder line towards piracy of its memberships by invoking things like two-verification log-ins, etc. The performance of the share price historically suggests that investors generally cheer price increases.
One of the key drivers of Netflix’s revenues is subscriber growth. As the five-year summary table shows, the revenues and contribution margin per subscriber is higher in the U.S., where the growth has been slowing recently, than in foreign markets. Over the last five years, U.S. subscribers have declined as a percent of total subscribers from 59% (2015) to 39% (2019) as international subscriber growth has exploded. Much of the company’s international subscriber growth has been in under-penetrated emerging markets countries, where there is also more price sensitivity that favours the lower margin basic plan over the higher margin standard or premium plans. Growth internationally, and specifically in large under-penetrated emerging countries where – simultaneously broadband is also still growing rapidly – will be a growth engine for Netflix as far as top-line revenues, but this on-going shift will likely cause margins to continue to compress. In the U.S. and other developed markets like the U.K. and the E.U., the subscriber growth will be more modest because the company is closer to a saturation point, and concurrently, the competition from new entrants is increasing.
From a cash flow perspective, the table below provides 10 years of summary financial data that illustrates the company’s historical cash flows.
Netflix provides an excellent reference guide on its own website that explains the accounting related to its content expenditures, including content which is developed in-house - see “Overview of Content Accounting”.
As Netflix has gradually shifted towards creating, developing and producing its own content, it has spent (on average) 26% of revenues/year on content. On an absolute basis, Netflix spent $4.5 billion on content (original and licensed) in 2018, and $5.4 billion in 2019. The company will need to continue to invest in its content in order to retain its existing subscriber base and attract new subscribers, particularly as the competitive landscape becomes more crowded. Considering expenditures on content, Netflix has not been cash flow positive for much of its history. In spite of the company’s impressive revenue growth and bottom-line profitability, the company had negative cash flow before financing of $4.1 billion in 2018 and $4.8 billion in 2019. Fortunately, Netflix had $5 billion of cash on its balance sheet at year end 2019 to meet its programming needs for this year. The company will need to raise money from banks or in the capital markets this year, either in the form of bonds or a secondary stock offering, to continue to develop at this pace. Netflix is a high yield or “junk” credit, rated Ba3/BB-, and indirectly is a beneficiary of support from the Federal Reserve’s QE purchases which now include high yield ETFs. There is one COVID-19 related unknown - I suspect that the company’s filming and production capabilities might currently be on hold due to social distancing policies, which might in fact reduce the company’s spend on content this year and help bolster its cash flow.
How The Competitors Stack Up
Before I present my conclusions on valuation, let me quickly compare the competitors on a handful of metrics. The two tables below include only U.S. based competitors since this is the most crowded and developed of the streaming markets, but there are also of course local competitors focused on their domestic market in many countries, including BBC, ITV and NowTV in the U.K.
The tables above indicate that of the three largest companies involved in streaming - Netflix, Amazon and Google - Netflix is substantially smaller in terms of market cap and weaker in terms of credit profile than the other two. From a valuation perspective looking at P/E, Netflix and Amazon are similar, recognising that Amazon has a much larger and more diversified business than Netflix. Disney and Apple are relatively new to the streaming game. Disney looks undervalued given the fact that the shares are 33% off their 52-week high (S&P 500 is 17.5% off its 52-week high), although the extent of the park closures (roughly one-third of revenues) and how they will eventually reopen are unknown. Still, the company has strong credit ratings and offers a dividend yield of 1.70%. Apple TV+ will not be significant to Apple on a standalone basis but will be integral to its overall iTunes offering. Like Disney, Apple also faces a drag on its revenues, caused in this case by many of its retail stores being shuttered. Apple of course is loaded with cash and is highly rated. Two of the players - HBO Max (WarnerMedia owned by AT&T) and Peacock/NBC Universal (owned by Comcast) – have lower growth and valuation metrics because they are also distribution companies that own fixed line telephony (AT&T) or cable infrastructure (Comcast) throughout the U.S.
The graph below shows the relative stock performance over the last five years of the various media / streaming companies mentioned in the table above.
As the table illustrates, Netflix and Amazon have been the best performers, followed rather far behind by Apple and Google. The shares of the other companies have not performed as well, generally because they have either had issues (Disney and theme parks) or are effectively involved in different and more asset-intensive businesses. Price to sales is an interesting metric when comparing the two high fliers Netflix and Amazon – in spite of Amazon being a much larger and diverse business – because it suggests that as Netflix’s revenue growth moderates, its multiple might also compress closer to that of Amazon (and Google). In fact, my view glancing at the metrics of these three high growth companies, is that Google is the stock that currently would seem to be the most undervalued (relatively speaking), and offers the most potential upside. Of course, one must factor in the effect of advertising revenue during this economic downturn, as Google’s entire revenue model is tied to advertising.
Netflix as a company has an extremely bright future and a promising outlook. It was the first real streaming company and as a first mover has the largest and most diversified subscriber base of any of its peers. However, I am struggling to support the company’s valuation at the current share price of nearly $440/share, in spite of the company’s amazing track record as far as revenue growth and growth in E.P.S.. I believe that Netflix has been one of the handful of companies whose share price has benefitted from COVID-19 because people are spending more time at home, and hence, generally have more available screen time. Having said this, there are many competitors grappling for this screen time, and even if subscribers to Netflix are spending more time on the service, revenue growth will only come from subscriber growth, higher monthly subscription fees, or a combination. Meanwhile, Netflix will most likely remain a negative cash flow company for several more years as it invests in content to protect its market share and attract new subscribers. The company will depend on funding in the debt or equity markets until it can eventually reach cash flow breakeven.