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Netflix Stock Has a Lot to Prove Next Week

By Rick Munarriz – Updated Apr 16, 2019 at 3:26PM

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The premium streaming leader needs to get it right when it reports fourth-quarter results on Jan. 17. Actually, it needs to do more than just get it right.

It may seem as if you're still writing 2018 on your personal checks, but the first earnings season of 2019 kicks off next week. Netflix (NFLX 2.50%) will be one of the first tech bellwethers to report, as it presents its fourth-quarter financials shortly after next Thursday's market close. 

Momentum is on its side. The world's leading premium video streamer has seen its shares close higher in all but one of the past 10 trading days. The stock has soared 37% since its Christmas Eve close. Bird Box bears may be refusing to take off their blindfolds, but the stock has been beautiful. It soared 39% last year, bucking the general market's malaise. Netflix stock has averaged an annual gain of slightly better than 90% over the last six years

Sandra Bullock donning the now iconic blindfold in "Bird Box" on Netflix.

Netflix reports earnings next week -- and it's OK to look! Image source: Netflix.

Keeping the gains coming

Netflix set the bar high when it initiated guidance for the holiday quarter. It sees fourth-quarter revenue rising 28% to hit a record $4.2 billion. Analysts are perched slightly higher with expectations of $4.21 billion on the top line -- likely inspired by the strong finish to 2018 with the official Netflix app shooting up the app marketplaces over the holidays on the strength of Bird Box and Black Mirror's interactive Bandersnatch episode.

It's a different story on the bottom line, but things there aren't as dire as they may seem at first. Netflix guidance back in October was calling for net income to decline 44% to $0.23 a share. Wall Street pros don't want to be caught falling for the dot-com darling's historically conservative forecasts, but they're targeting a profit of only $0.24 a share. 

Lower bottom-line results will be the handiwork of the timing of content spend. Netflix invested in a large number of original films during the quarter. And those capital outlays get expensed on a more-accelerated basis than TV shows do, since film viewing is more front-loaded than it is for a series that can have a longer tail of engagement. We saw this deliciously play out when Netflix revealed that a third of its accounts streamed Bird Box in its first seven days of availability last month. Move on to the contribution profit growth forecast, and Netflix is targeting 18% and 56% year-over-year growth in the quarter for its stateside and international streaming operations, respectively.

Netflix was also targeting 138 million paying subscribers and 146.5 million total members by the end of 2018. The year-end goal translates into a record 9.4 million increase sequentially from Q3, and 28.9 million net additions for all of 2018. To frame this achievement, Hulu -- the closest Netflix rival as a pure stand-alone streaming service -- was bragging earlier this week about adding 8 million subscribers in 2018. 

Given the social media buzz generated by Netflix's content slate last month, it would be a surprise if Netflix didn't top its earlier revenue and subscriber targets.

But that won't be enough to justify the stock's recent gains. Netflix will have to reassure investors with hearty guidance for the current quarter, something that has tripped it up in the past. Netflix needs another quarter that is better than perfect to keep the gains coming, and one way or another, the stock is going to be a big mover by the end of next week.

Check out the latest Netflix earnings call transcript.

Rick Munarriz owns shares of Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Netflix. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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