Yesterday it came out that Whitney Tilson went long Netflix after famously being premature on the short-side.
Why did he pull the trigger after the big plunge?
We established a position in Netflix yesterday after the stock crashed 35%. We will discuss it at greater length in our monthly letter next week, but in case you read about it before then, we wanted to assure you that we haven’t lost our minds. We simply think it’s a good 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.
Given our unsuccessful timing of being short this stock – a highly frustrating experience – we’ll admit that it was hard to overcome the emotional baggage and think about Netflix with a fresh perspective, but as we wrote to you in last month’s letter, for every investment decision, we simply ask ourselves: if we were starting our fund from scratch today and held only cash, what would we do? In this case, the answer is that, at this price, we’d own Netflix.
Netflix today reminds us of BP 16 months ago (and we all know how well that worked out): 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 – even when we were short it. The problem wasn’t the company, but rather the extreme valuation of the stock – but now that it’s down nearly 75% from its peak less than four months ago, the valuation is downright cheap in our opinion.
The article below captures many of the reasons we’re bullish. In addition, we’d add the following:
• We think Netflix can earn $5-6 of contribution margin per customer per month (a bit less than half of average revenue of approximately $12.50). This translates into $1.3-$1.7 billion of operating profit (excluding Netflix’s nascent international operations), for a company with a market cap today of just over $4 billion.
• With 23.8 million subscribers (again, excluding 1.5 million international ones), Netflix is being valued at $175/subscriber, a very low figure relative to other media companies.
• We think Netflix was smart to raise its price – our only quarrel is how Reed Hastings communicated it. We wish he’d send the letter below to them, explaining the reasons for this action. 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, 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.
• Its shrunken market cap means that Netflix would be a bite-sized acquisition for any number of much larger companies like Apple ($370B market cap), Google ($188B), Amazon ($93B) or Disney ($64B).
Please let us know if you have any questions.
Whitney and Glenn
PS—Our fund is up 7.8% this month through yesterday.
What we wish Reed Hastings would write to his subscribers:
We cannot deliver a superior streaming and DVD-by-mail service to our customers for $7.99/month, so we cannot rescind the recent price increase. Allow me to explain why. 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.
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. 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 wish we could and hope you understand.