Wall Street had high expectations for Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) going into its fourth-quarter earnings release. The stock had gained 50% after bottoming in late December during the recent market correction. After a move of that magnitude, even a stellar financial report might not have been enough to keep Netflix stock moving higher.
Netflix delivered on all the metrics that mattered. Let's take a look at a few of the most important takeaways and what they mean for the company's future.
1. Revenue continues to grow
Netflix grew revenue to $4.187 billion last quarter: up more than 27% year over year, but slightly below the company's forecast of $4.199 billion and the analyst consensus of $4.21 billion. Netflix pointed out that foreign exchange headwinds lowered revenue for the quarter, similar to what it had seen in Q3.
Additionally, the average subscription price (ASP) grew by 3% year over year. Excluding the impact of exchange rates, international ASP grew by 6% year over year.
For the full year, revenue grew to $15.8 billion, up 35% compared with 2017. That growth will likely continue in the coming months in the wake of the company's recent price increase and its continued strong subscriber growth.
2. Subscriber growth is accelerating
The single most important indicator of Netflix's future success has always been subscriber growth. In October, the company forecast 7.6 million new paying members worldwide for the fourth quarter. Netflix easily surpassed its guidance, bringing in 8.84 million net paid additions. Its paid subscriber count grew by 25.9% during 2018, accelerating from 24.2% growth in 2017. This brought the company's total paid streaming base to 139.26 million.
Breaking that down further, the number of paid international subscribers grew by 7.31 million last quarter: 42% more than in the fourth quarter of 2017. In the U.S., Netflix added 1.53 million paid subscribers, up from 1.47 million in the prior-year quarter. It ended the quarter with 80.77 million international subs and 58.49 million members in the U.S.
3. Cash burn is slowing
In its third-quarter shareholder letter, Netflix signaled that it might have reached peak cash burn, saying, "We anticipate that FCF [free cash flow] will be closer to -$3 billion than to -$4 billion for the full year 2018. ... We currently see next year's negative FCF as roughly flat with this year."
It turned out that Netflix was right on target, as free cash flow came in at -$3.02 billion, much less than the company anticipated in early 2018. The combination of slowing cash burn and a growing subscriber base should hasten the day when the company becomes free cash flow positive.
Netflix is standing by its cash burn estimate for 2019, expecting its negative FCF to be roughly flat compared with 2018, and "then will improve each year thereafter."
4. Bird Box was even bigger than we thought
In late December, Netflix caused a stir when it tweeted, "Took off my blindfold this morning to discover that 45,037,125 Netflix accounts have already watched Bird Box -- best first 7 days ever for a Netflix film!" In its Q4 shareholder letter, the company updated those figures for its viral hit. In the first four weeks of release, 80 million member households -- 57% of its worldwide subscribers -- watched the Susanne Bier-helmed film.
That wasn't the only blockbuster during the quarter. Netflix offered a peek behind the curtain for a limited set of its programs. Psychological thriller You and British dramedy Sex Education were both on track to top 40 million viewers in the first four weeks since their respective debuts.
Netflix is also seeing success from original content around the world. Spanish-language original Elite had been seen by 20 million member households. Bodyguard, which was co-produced with BBC One; Baby, the company's second original series from Italy; and The Protector, its freshman effort for Turkish viewers, were all viewed by more than 10 million member households.
5. There's growing competition
Netflix doesn't seem fazed by the growing competition in the streaming space. The company estimates that it accounts for 10% of all television screen time in the U.S., at about 100 million hours per day. (Its share of mobile video is even lower).
In addressing the growing competition, Netflix said, "There are thousands of competitors in this highly-fragmented market vying to entertain consumers. ... Our focus is not on Disney+, Amazon, or others, but on how we can improve our experience for our members."
The biggest takeaway is that Netflix's growth story is continuing unabated. There will be quarters when subscriber growth comes in below (or above) expectations; revenue may be hit by foreign currency headwinds (or tailwinds); and some programs will be flops (or hits). The overall trend, however, is up and to the right, and Netflix continues to blaze a trail that others must follow.
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Danny Vena owns shares of Amazon, Netflix, and Walt Disney and is long January 2019 $85 calls on Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon, Netflix, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.