A few months ago, analyst Ken Sena at Evercore upgraded Groupon’s stock, arguing that the stock had fallen enough that the risk/reward was compelling.At the time, if memory serves, the stock was trading at about $11.
Now, the stock is below $7. And Sena is downgrading it in a startling note that makes it sound like he thinks Groupon might have committed fraud.
The downgrade is based on two factors:
- Ongoing deterioration in the core business, which Sena appears to have some private information about
- New information about Groupon’s performance in Q1 that makes Sena think Groupon management misrepresented the results on the company’s conference call and that the quarter wasn’t as impressive as Sena initially thought.
Here’s the key language in Sena’s note summary (emphasis mine):
We are reducing our rating given our concerns over the transparency and disclosure of the 1P [first-party] Goods business, coupled with signs of deterioration within the core daily deals business.
New information has emerged related to the company’s Goods category that makes us question the composition of the 1Q12 North America revenue beat…
In addition, billings data for North America and International are trending well below consensus, indicating a sequential q/q decline vs. Street expectation for high single digit billings improvement.
In the note, Sena then goes on to explain in great detail why he thinks Groupon management misrepresented its Q1 results on the company’s earnings conference call.
In Q1, Groupon surprised Wall Street by reporting that North American revenue growth had accelerated sharply from the prior quarter, to 32% year over year.
This positive surprise reassured investors and caused the stock to jump.
On the company’s conference call, Sena says, Groupon’s management explained the revenue acceleration as being the result of two factors:
- Improved deal targeting (via personalisation and algorithms)
- Increased “deal density” (offering more deals closer to where people live)
This explanation was cheered by Wall Street, because it suggested that Groupon was fulfilling its promise of leveraging its technology to drive sales without spending more money on marketing.
But since the call, Sena says, he has determined that most of Groupon’s revenue strength in Q1 was not, in fact, the result of technology and targeting improvements, but, rather, the launch of a new business called Groupon Goods that sometimes accounts for revenue differently.
Specifically, when Groupon sells some merchandise through Groupon Goods, it books 100% of the sale price as revenue. When Groupon sells coupons for other merchants, meanwhile (its core business), it only books as revenue the portion of the coupon price that it keeps (generally, the minority).
In Groupon’s most recent filing with the SEC, Sena says, Groupon appears to have contradicted what it said on its conference call. Specifically, the company said that the Q1 revenue strength was “primarily” driven by the launch of the Goods business, which accounts for some revenue differently than the core coupon business.
Using proprietary data from data-tracking firm Yipit, Sena estimates that about half of the North American revenue growth in Q1 came from this different accounting treatment, rather than the reasons Groupon described in its conference call.
Sena concludes, euphemistically, that Groupon should have provided “greater transparency” on its Q1 conference call.
That’s a polite way of putting it.
In any event, based on this new insight, as well as the ongoing deterioration of Groupon’s core business, Sena slashed his growth outlook and price target for Groupon, the latter from $17 to $9.
In response to Sena’s note, Groupon has crashed to a new all-time low of $6.75.
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