Why Priceline Crushed Forecasts!

Friday, shares of priceline.com (NASDAQ: PCLN  ) , the $55 billion market capitalization travel service provider, rose nearly 5%. The underlying cause behind this rise stems from an earnings announcement released that showed the company exceeding analyst estimates on both its top and bottom lines. Priceline.com has been on fire and recently became a member of the $1,000 per share club. This of course leads Foolish investors to wonder, does this earnings report give an indication as to what the future holds for this online travel juggernaut?

Earnings smashes forecasts
For the company's most recent quarter, Mr. Market expected it to post earnings per share of $16.15 on revenue of $2.22 billion. Fortunately for the company, it succeeded in beating analyst expectations with revenue of almost $2.27 billion (a beat by nearly 2.3%). Although this in and of itself is impressive, it's even more impressive that, when placed against the same quarter a year ago, the company saw its revenue increase by roughly 33%.

The primary driver behind this increase in revenue stems from the company's significant increase in gross bookings, which represents the total value of the company's travel sales to customers. Over the time horizon, priceline.com saw its gross travel bookings rise by 37.5% to $10.77 billion. In comparison, Expedia (NASDAQ: EXPE  ) saw its gross bookings rise by only 15% from its third quarter of last year to its third quarter this year. However, at nearly $10.44 billion, it's not far behind priceline.com in terms of size. In comparison, Orbitz Worldwide (NYSE: OWW  ) , reported a far smaller amount of gross bookings at $2.77 billion, an increase of only 4.6% from the $2.65 billion it reported the same period a year ago.

In addition to beating expectations on revenue, the company outperformed on its bottom line with earnings per share of $17.30, 7.1% above forecasts and 39.5% above the $12.40 the company reported in the same period a year ago. However, the Foolish investor shouldn't get too carried away with these results as they aren't "real" in your traditional sense. These metrics being reported by the investment community are actually the company's non-GAAP earnings per share, not its actual earnings per share.

In essence, what this means is that the $17.30 reported this quarter and the $12.40 reported the same period a year ago aren't the company's true earnings but, rather, earnings that the company believes are more accurate than those required by generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP). By removing the company's adjustments, you arrive at actual earnings per share for this quarter and last year's quarter of $15.72 and $11.66, respectively. Irrespective of this though, it still represents a significant increase from the prior year.

This significant increase was due, in part, to the company's higher revenue, but was also attributed to its cost of revenue declining from 18.2% of sales last year to 12.4% of sales this quarter. This improvement was partially offset by the company's operating expenses increasing from 37.6% of sales to 41.5% of sales, a good portion of which was attributable to the company raising its online advertising from 22% of sales to 23.5%.

Show me the margins!
Aside from revenue and net income growth, priceline.com has been experiencing some rather attractive growth in its net profit margin. For instance, in its most recent fiscal quarter, the company boasted a high net profit margin of 36.7%, compared to the 35% it reported last year. Both of these quarterly results are far higher than its 2012 net profit margin of 27% or its four-year average net profit margin of 22.3%.

In juxtaposition, Expedia earned about 12.2% in profits margins in its last fiscal quarter and 11.2% as a four-year average, a metric that, year-over-year, has deteriorated as it faces severe market power from priceline.com. Orbitz has been even worse off with a quarterly net profit margin of 5.9% and a four-year average net profit margin of -24.5%.

Foolish takeaway
As with any Internet-based company, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine what the future holds for it. However, if the trends we are seeing hold firm over the next few years, it is almost certain that shareholders of priceline.com will be happier than the owners of its peers. On the other hand, the Foolish investor should keep in mind that, at 26.9 times its forward price/earnings ratio, shares of the company are relatively expensive, which could force anyone buying now to wait a while before an attractive payday presents itself. As always Foolish investors should do their own research before making any investment decisions.

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