Earnings season kicks off next week, and one of the more intriguing companies reporting in the first wave of quarterly reports will be Netflix (NFLX -3.50%). The top premium video streaming platform reports fresh financials shortly after next Wednesday's market close, and naturally there's a lot riding on the update.
Netflix stock was rocked last time out when it only tacked on 2.7 million global streaming accounts during the three months ending in June, including a rare sequential decline in domestic accounts. The FANG middle child was originally calling for 5 million net subscriber additions worldwide. Netflix is typically conservative with the guidance it puts out, and it has never fallen short of subscriber targets twice in the same year. If Netflix clocks in below its projected growth of 7 million global streaming paid memberships, it will be historic -- in a bad way. The market isn't likely to take kindly to back-to-back whiffs, and that's just one of the things that can go wrong for Netflix.
The skittish are coming
Netflix blames a springtime price hike for its uninspiring subscriber attraction during the second quarter. The pricing increase's benefits -- including widening operating margin and a 12% surge in average revenue per domestic user -- were drowned out by concerns about the slowdown in membership growth. Investors typically applaud when a company has the flexibility to still grow after pushing out four substantial price hikes in five years, but even that elasticity will be put to the test given the pricing strategies of hungry rivals.
The headline risks are real at Netflix. Apple (AAPL -1.30%) launches on Nov. 1 at $4.99 a month. Disney (DIS -2.49%) will roll out Disney+ less than two weeks later at $6.99 a month. Netflix hasn't had a problem competing against services that are cheaper than the $12.99 a month it currently charges for its most popular streaming plan, but things could be different this time.
Apple TV+ and Disney+ aren't just cheaper than Netflix. They are aggressively locking up consumers at much lower price points than even the reasonably low published rates. Apple is giving new buyers of its devices a year of its streaming service at no additional cost. Disney has approached its credit card holders, fan club members, and theme park passholders with plans to prepay for two to three years of the service for as little as $3.89 a month. Disney and Apple are also launching their services with hot original shows out of the gate, something that hasn't been the norm for existing platforms that have slowly built up their content catalogs.
The fear here is that Netflix could be peaking domestically with its 60 million-ish streaming members. Needham's Laura Martin -- one of the better analysts tracking this niche -- feels that Netflix might drop to 50 million U.S. accounts if it doesn't respond to the pricing war, and naturally investors aren't going to be happy if it has to cut prices. With recessionary fears still percolating, Netflix doesn't want to be the highest-priced premium service on the market -- even if its catalog and content spending are unmatched by its lesser rivals.
The stock has already shed a quarter of its value since its second-quarter miss, so a lot of the negative sentiment is already priced into the shares. However, it's going to be hard for Netflix to flap its wings next week when the headwinds are stronger than they've ever been.
You're going to want to comb next week's Netflix shareholder letter for insight if not hope. Every bull and bear will be doing the same thing.