For years investors have hoped Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOGL) (NASDAQ:GOOG) would offer up some specific performance metrics for YouTube, and for years they've been denied outside irregular disclosures. Not even the SEC was able to pressure the web's most notable middleman to share those details. The company argued that as long as CEO Larry Page wasn't made aware of YouTube's fiscal details, it was certainly under no obligation to divulge them to the public, or to competitors.
Larry Page is no longer the CEO, though, stepping down early this month and handing the reins to the Sundar Pichai, who had been acting as the head of Alphabet subsidiary Google since 2015. Assuming that Pichai is more privy to YouTube metrics, the rationale for not disclosing that information to investors falls apart.
Analysts can only guess
No matter what it's worth now, there's no denying YouTube has been one of Google's more brilliant acquisitions when it comes to drawing a crowd that drives ad revenue. The company paid a mere $1.65 billion for the video platform back in 2006, and now it streams 1 billion worth of video content every single day, much of which generates ad revenue. In fact, it's by far the most popular online video venue, capturing more total viewing time than any other service in almost all of the world's major markets, including subscription-based on-demand video leader Netflix.
Problem: Investors have only been able to speculate as to what that means fiscally, and not even the pros can come to a consensus on the matter. There is one common element, however -- that is, all of the guesses are plenty large in scope.
At the lower end of the spectrum, analysts suggested earlier in the year that YouTube drove around $14 billion to $15 billion in ad sales last year. RBC Capital Markets analyst Mark Mahaney thinks the number is $20 billion. Rob Sanderson, senior research analyst with MKM Partners, pegs the figure at $26 billion.
Still, most of the guesses tend to be at the lower end of the estimates, which would make the site responsible for roughly one-tenth of Alphabet's total annual revenue.
Even fewer analysts are willing to make a hard -- or even soft -- guess as to YouTube's profitability, and of the few who are willing to broach the topic, they're not enthused. Pivotal Research Group's senior research analyst Brian Wieser commented earlier this year that it's "not a given that the numbers will look good on balance," adding "Yes, it's [YouTube] big in revenue. But it's expensive too. So much of Google's overall capital expenditures go toward supporting YouTube." Needham's managing director Laura Martin voiced even bigger doubts as recently as March of this year, bluntly saying "We believe that YouTube loses money."
If Alphabet finally opts to reveal YouTube's results, and if they're not stellar, it could prove problematic for the stock. Many investors may fear YouTube bleeds cash, but until they know for sure, the market could be giving the company the benefit of any doubt.
Even if YouTube's numbers -- should they surface -- initially disappoint, it's not necessarily the end of the world. YouTube doesn't have to turn a profit to have profit-making value for Google, or Alphabet, as many of Alphabet's various segments and services complement each other. It's not always easy to fairly attribute costs and their eventual revenue for complex tech companies with multiple operating units that feed one another.
One thing is for sure, though...the likelihood of Alphabet finally sharing YouTube's numbers just went up in a pretty big way now that Pichai is at the helm.