Don't Be Fooled by This Rosy Netflix Metric

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."
-- Mark Twain, 1906

Charts and graphs can be very useful. They're a great tool for making sense of trends in both the long and short term, and for sorting out one-off events from the bigger picture. But they can also lie better than any other medium if you're looking at the wrong data. Mark Twain would have a lot of fun with today's financial charts, if only to rip them apart with a twinkle in his eye.

Take a look at this EBITDA margins chart, for example, and tell me what you see:

CMCSA EBITDA Margin (TTM) Chart

CMCSA EBITDA Margin (TTM) data by YCharts

These are some of the most profitable businesses on the market today. Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) collects copious amounts of cash from a high-margin software focus with very low capital requirements. It makes perfect sense that Microsoft's EBITDA margins run high.

Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) is riding a decade of fantastic success where it established itself as a seller of high-end, or even luxury, products. The age of smartphones has been very kind to Apple's EBITDA profits.

Likewise, Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA  ) loves to charge very high prices for its cable TV and Internet services. With very little competition in most of its local markets, consumers often have no choice but to pay up. Alongside the rest of the cable industry, Comcast is raising its subscription prices at more than twice the pace of inflation. Again, this is great for the company's EBITDA profits.

These are strong businesses with very healthy profits, including exceptional EBITDA margins. And yet, Netflix (NASDAQ: NFLX  ) is crushing all of them right now -- and still climbing higher.

That flies in the face of Netflix's razor-thin net profits and negative free cash flows.

NFLX Profit Margin (TTM) Chart

NFLX Profit Margin (TTM) data by YCharts

And that's a clear signal to take a closer look at the numbers. How is it possible that Netflix is showing market-trouncing EBITDA profits even as other profitability markers are pointing way down?

As always, the answer comes back to Netflix's massive content costs.

Netflix moves its streaming content expenses onto the income statement and balance sheet by way of amortizing a cash flow item. It's an accounting treatment that spreads the taxable impact of content costs over the usable life of the licenses, which often is several years.

In 2011, Netflix classified just $800,000 of its content costs under amortization. In 2012, it was $1.7 billion. Last year, amoprtized content library costs rose to $2.2 billion.

These items are not included in EBITDA calculations, which is why Netflix's EBITDA margin chart looks so incredibly... impossible.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings doesn't throw the deceptive EBITDA metric around very often. You should ignore it, too. Image source: Netflix.

There are many reasons to love Netflix's stock, especially now that share prices have dropped more than 17% in just a couple of weeks. I do believe that the company's domestic growth has several years of healthy improvements left in it, and that the international growth strategy will pay huge dividends in the long term. The high costs of rolling out a global service are holding Netflix's profits back for the next several years, but should be well worth this short-term pain in the end.

So there's a solid investment case to be made for Netflix. But don't buy Netflix shares based on fat and rising EBITDA profits.

Management would tell you the same thing. Netflix doesn't include EBITDA profits in its quarterly earnings report; the company hasn't mentioned EBITDA in an SEC filing since 2002, and hasn't mentioned the metric in earnings calls since 2006 -- way before the whole streaming saga even started.

Lies, damned lies, and looking at the wrong numbers -- yep, that sure sounds like a tight family of dangerous deceptions.

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Read/Post Comments (3) | Recommend This Article (6)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 26, 2014, at 11:24 AM, umavarikuti wrote:

    Anders - thank you for posting well thought out articles. I never skip anything posted by you!

    Warren Buffet talks about the uselessness of EBITDA by providing an example of how a bank wouldn't give a loan on a car to a high school kid without calculating the depreciation cost.

    I think in some cases this can be used for directional and trend analysis. Good to know that Netflix is not providing this metric in their earnings' reports.

    Another metric that Buffet talks about - owner earnings. I am wondering if there is a way to calculate that for Netflix?

  • Report this Comment On March 26, 2014, at 12:05 PM, TMFBiggles wrote:

    Smart analysis, Anders.

    - Alex

  • Report this Comment On March 26, 2014, at 1:21 PM, Fo45 wrote:

    Healthy growth ? Content price is skyrocketing as well as content delivery. Non English speaking international market has never been profitable and France and Germany market is not easy to penetrate and are highly regulated. The completion is fierce. Netflix delivery is in the hand of ISPs most of them netflix's competitors.For example Comcast is charging Netflix millions for content delivery at the same time struck a deal with sony studios and made HOC (Netflix's pride and exclusive) Available to its members and started taking to Apple for streaming media. Amazon came up with 9 original pilot show at once.

    Netflix is in an impasse needs to raise membership price otherwise it can not afford content but this may trigger membership loss or slow growth both ways Netflix will lose. So, I see a lot of unhealthy staff going on for Netflix.to stay afloat It has to increase the sub price and number, borrow more money , sell more stocks or file bankruptcy.

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