Netflix (NFLX 2.81%) delighted investors once again with its latest report.
The streaming stock soared Wednesday after the company topped estimates on both subscriber growth and revenue, and as it forecast a strong 2021. Netflix added 8.5 million new subscribers in the quarter, well ahead of the company's guidance at 6 million, but perhaps most importantly, it told investors that it was done taking on new debt, signaling that it could now self-fund its growth. That was a sharp departure from years of multi-billion-dollar free cash flow losses and the accompanying chorus of naysayers on Wall Street.
In the end, Netflix emerged on top as the stock hit yet another all-time high. Since its 2002 IPO, the stock has returned 40% annually, making it one of the best-performing stocks of the last 20 years.
Keep reading to see three must-see numbers in the blowout report.
1. 200 million
For the first time ever, Netflix's subscriber base topped 200 million, finishing the fourth quarter with 203.7 million paying subscribers. That's far more than any other paid video entertainment service in the world, and Netflix has achieved that milestone by becoming a truly global business.
Fewer than 40% of its subscribers, or 73.9 million, come from North America, and the EMEA region (Europe, Middle East, and Africa) looks set to pass North America as the company's biggest in the next year or two, as it currently has 66.7 million members there. Meanwhile, Netflix is just starting to build out its subscriber base in the Asia-Pacific region, its biggest region by population. It now has 25.5 million subscribers, making it its smallest region, but its subscriber base grew by 56% last year and the region delivered the second biggest subscriber additions with 9.3 million.
Netflix management deserves credit for embracing a local content strategy that's put significant distance between it and its competitors and attracted audiences around the world. International titles were among its biggest hits in the fourth quarter. A German title, Barbarians, nabbed 37 viewers in its first four weeks; a Korean horror show, Sweet Home, found an audience of 22 million; and 25 million streamed Selena: The Series. The company also noted the strong early performance of Lupin, a French heist thriller, which it expects to reach 70 million viewers in its first four weeks on the services.
With hit shows in multiple languages, Netflix looks poised for steady subscriber growth around the world.
After several years of cash burn with the company posting billions of dollars of free cash flow losses, Netflix now expects to reach break-even in free cash flow this year. Not only does that represent an improvement from Netflix's previous forecast of between negative $1 billion and break-even free cash flow for 2021, but it also shows a dramatic acceleration to positive free cash flow, as some analysts didn't expect the company to reach break-even until 2023.
The pandemic has clearly accelerated the path to positive free cash flow for Netflix as it both pulled forward subscriber growth and delayed content spending, but it also shows the company reaching a steady state with its programming, as annual content spending seems likely to hover around $15 billiion. Netflix finished 2020 with $11.8 billion in content expenses on a cash basis, and $1.9 billion in free cash flow.
Management also said in its letter to shareholders, "We believe we are very close to being sustainably FCF positive," and that it doesn't expect to take on any more debt. Both those statements show that the company's gamble on content has paid off, giving it a wide economic moat and a fast-growing, sustainably profitable business.
Netflix finished 2020 with an operating margin of 18%, above its target of 16%. For 2021, the company expects to generate an operating margin of 20%, above its previous forecast of 19%, showing the company turning into a profit machine. Netflix has just raised prices in several major markets, including the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., and is expected to do so in other parts of Europe. That, along with steady subscriber growth and moderating growth in content spending, will help the company expand its profit margins this year. If revenue grows 20% this year, that will give the company $6 billion in in operating income, up 31% from 2020. With no new debt coming on, earnings per share should grow by an even wider margin.
Additionally, management made another bold prediction regarding operating margin. The company expects the profitability to increase by three percentage points each year, a sign that the company not only sees strong top-line growth ahead, but also expects profits to quickly ramp up. That forecast would mean operating margin would be 29% by 2024.
Even as Netflix has faced a slew of new competition in the past year, it looks as strong as ever. Shares hit an all-time high Wednesday, and it looks well-positioned for further gains.