Groupon Is Having Trouble With the New Math

With the latest news about Groupon's (Nasdaq: GRPN  ) accounting errors and material weaknesses, I started thinking about how amorphous this company really is. It seems like every time money is involved, the numbers are more than a little squirrelly, and even its own communications director now says that the company is not a deal site, but a "merchant partner." Clear as mud? Let's move on.

Since its IPO last November, Groupon has been on shaky ground. Its stock has fallen in the past three months. Then there's the fuzzy math issue. Before their initial offering, Groupon and its underwriters seemed to be having problems figuring out the value of the company, and numbers were bandied about in the $30 billion range, until everyone actually looked at the earnings numbers and revised it down to around $10 billion.

Deal-making business is not for sissies
While starting a daily deal site is easy, keeping one up and running is not. Nearly 800 went out of business last year, and the survivors don't seem to be raking in the dough: LivingSocial lost nearly $560 million last year, probably thanking its lucky stars that it has Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) as a sizable investor. Amazon recently offered its own deal on gift cards, advertising $10 cards for half-price through its own AmazonLocal to foster interest in the site. The Internet giant noted that it expected to lose money on the deal. Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) has been flexing its deal-making muscle as well, spreading its Google Offers around to 40 cities and signing up 30 partners along the way. Sounds expensive, but if anyone can afford it, Google can.

Although Groupon lost $257 million last year, it continues on with expansion plans. As noted by accounting professors Anthony Catanach and J. Edward Ketz, Groupon has made 17 acquisitions in the past year or so, as well as experienced meteoric growth -- such as widening its merchant group to nearly 80,000 from a little over 200 just a couple of years ago. How did it finance all this? It certainly makes me wonder.

This latest restatement of earnings was a biggie in a few ways. Not only did the company have to admit that it made a huge accounting boo-boo, particularly after the initial valuation circus, but it also had to admit that customers of Groupon are demanding more of their money back. Not only that, but the company is now being investigated for possible violations of securities laws by releasing those buggy financial numbers. Well, at least the numbers seem right this time: $65 million quarterly loss times four equals a $260 million loss for this year, if the pattern continues. Pretty close to last year's loss, isn't it?

What's in store for Groupon?
Will we all wake up one morning to find out that Groupon disappeared in a puff of smoke? It's not an easy business and there's tons of competition, but something is just not right here. When it comes to smoke and mirrors, Groupon's got you covered.

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Fool contributor Amanda Alix owns no shares in the companies mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of Google and Amazon.com. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Amazon.com and Google. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

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  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2012, at 4:43 PM, Chancing wrote:

    Groupon smelled on the day of its IPO, and is still smelly as of today. Quite puzzled why still so many fell prey under. Just can't figure out where the investment merry was, is and will be.

  • Report this Comment On April 02, 2012, at 5:13 PM, KingOfPizza wrote:

    Groupon depends on merchants willing to take a loss to drum up some new business. I just don't see how that's a viable business model. Most of Groupon's customers are "deal addicts" and would never become a repeat customer at full price.

  • Report this Comment On April 03, 2012, at 10:16 AM, mikecart1 wrote:

    If Groupon is still around anywhere near its current price and company value in 3 years, I would be more surprised than if AAPL were $2000/share. Groupon was a terrible concept before the IPO, an even worse concept after the IPO, and the business model just looks worse and worse when you consider the next few years of competition and phasing out of this 'deal site'.

    :D

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