Shares of Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) are back in favor. The media giant's stock hit new 52-week highs this week, proving that momentum is in Disney's corner as we head into its fiscal first-quarter report on Tuesday.
Disney stock has soared 16% since its previous quarterly report, suggesting that expectations are high this time around. Well, that could be a problem. Analysts aren't holding out for a spectacular showing on either end of the income statement.
Wall Street pros see $15.26 billion in revenue for the quarter, essentially flat with the $15.24 billion it rang up a year earlier. This may be considered an improvement over the 3% year-over-year decline that Disney posted three months earlier, but those comparisons include an extra week during the year-ago fiscal quarter. On a normalized basis, Tuesday afternoon's results could be Disney's weakest top-line growth since the summer quarter of 2010.
Use the force, Luke
Flat results don't have to be problematic. One has to frame the quarter correctly, and in this case Disney's financial performance will be stacked up against the 14% growth it posted during the prior year's holiday quarter. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a theatrical juggernaut that buoyed those results.
Disney's revenue has historically grown at a single-digit percentage clip. The 14% top-line spurt a year ago was its strongest showing since the third quarter of fiscal 2010, according to data from S&P Global Market Intelligence -- and that period was also an anomaly since it was coming off of a 7% decline a year earlier during the global recession that sent shockwaves through Disney's businesses.
There will be a couple of things keeping revenue growth in check this time around. Disney keeps pushing out blockbusters at the local multiplex, but it won't be able to compete against 2015's record-breaking return of the Star Wars saga. Disney's consumer products division will also be challenged to keep up, and we've already seen at least one major toymaker with Disney ties chime in with rough quarterly results.
Media networks -- Disney's largest segment -- should also check in with a flat performance as any gains on the broadcasting end will probably be offset with weakness at its cable networks as cord cutters continue to weigh on the prospects for ESPN, Disney Channel, and its other subscriber-dependent properties.
There should be modest growth at Disney's theme parks division. Attendance growth has been a challenge in two of the three previous quarters, but between folks spending more and the springtime debut of Shanghai Disneyland, it's one segment that should help offset the weakness elsewhere.
Holding out for more
If analysts holding out for flat revenue growth seems problematic, the news may only get worse on the bottom line. Wall Street's forecasting a profit of $1.50 a share, short of the $1.63 a share it posted a year earlier.
The scalable nature of Disney's studio entertainment and consumer products businesses will eat into its operating profit given the tough year-over-year comparisons, and any improvement in operating margins at its theme parks won't come as much of a consolation.
Disney used to routinely trounce Wall Street's profit targets, but it has fallen short in two of the past three quarters. Investors don't like to see that kind of momentum, and the push to new 52-week highs this week may seem at odds with a company expected to post flat uninspiring financial results. However, with many meaty catalysts across its businesses set to roll out later this calendar year -- from the ambitious Avatar-themed Disney World expansion this summer to Star Wars: The Last Jedi come December -- the media giant should be able to point to its future instead of being marked down for its past.