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Netflix Always Gets the Last Laugh

By Rick Munarriz - Apr 21, 2021 at 8:05AM

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Wall Street hates Tuesday afternoon's earnings report. It's not the first time the market has gotten it wrong with Netflix.

Netflix (NFLX -0.69%) had a lot to prove on Tuesday afternoon, and judging by the market's initial reaction it flunked with flying sell orders. Shares of the company behind the the world's leading premium video service were trading nearly 10% lower in Tuesday's after-hours trading.

Netflix didn't have a problem landing comfortably ahead of the revenue and net income goalposts it set up in January. The first of the two stumbles was that it fell short of its subscriber guidance. Netflix tacked on nearly 4 million paying streaming accounts worldwide to its membership base during the quarter, but the 207.6 million global users was 2 million less than it was forecasting three months earlier. 

The second stumble -- and this is even worse -- is that it only expects to close out the new quarter with just a million net subscriber additions. Put another way, Netflix expected to have 209.7 million streaming subs by the end of March. Now it won't even get there by the end of June. This isn't pretty, and one can rightfully argue that the sell-off is warranted. It may be a good time to look back at some of the other times that Netflix has fallen down. It has always gotten back up even stronger than before. 

The cast of Sense 8 making a toast at a bar.

Image source: Netflix.

Party like it's 2019

Let's start with the last time that Netflix shares tumbled after falling well shy of its subscriber target. It was the second quarter of 2019. Netflix fell 2.3 million net additions short of its membership forecast. The stock also took a 10% dive on the news. It would go on to also drift lower for the three subsequent trading days, ending the four-day slide at $307.30.

One thing that both misses have in common is that they happened during the last two times that Netflix increased its monthly rate for U.S. subscribers. The membership target was well off what its crystal ball was showing earlier, but higher revenue per user helped clean up the top and bottom lines.

Netflix isn't blaming the miss on the recent increase, the fifth time that Netflix has increased its stateside subscription rate in the last seven years. Netflix feels that a lighter-than-usual content slate through the first half of this year -- something that is weighing on its weak forecast for the current quarter -- and the COVID-19 crisis pulling forward new sign-ups into 2020 are the culprits here. It's not leaning on the hike as a scapegoat. No matter what the excuse, it bears pointing out that the stock has soared more than 60% in less than two years since its last membership miss.

The cast of Orange Is the New Black looking at someone that has fallen.

Image source: Netflix.

Remembering Qwikster

We can then travel back a couple more years in time. It was late summer in 2011, and Netflix played the Qwikster card. The streaming service that was included for members of its DVDs-by-mail subscription at no additional cost would take over Netflix.com. Its physical disc rentals would become a separate subscription, rebranded as Qwikster. Naming a platform after what sounded like a fast-food villain seemed like an outrageous strategy at the time. 

The stock took 7% hit on the news, and also went on to drift lower in the three subsequent trading days. If you were buying Netflix instead of shaking your head at what some continue to call a "Qwikster fiasco" you would be sitting on a 27-bagger today. 

Netflix has a history of getting it right all along. Netflix would go on to kill Qwikster a month after it was announced, but it died in name only. Netflix divided the two platforms anyway. It was the right call, as digital delivery was the ticket to global expansion and early market leadership that it would never relinquish. 

If higher monthly subscription rates played a part in the 2019 and 2021 subscriber hits it will be worth it. The prognosis is so much brighter for Netflix charging $13.99 a month now than it was $12.99 earlier this year, $10.99 in early 2019 or $7.99 until the springtime of 2014.  

All of the things that the market initially mistook as a misstep was just a step back before taking several steps forward. Netflix is one of the best media stocks over the past two decades because it always gets the last laugh. It's not laughing now, and if history is any kind of teacher it won't be laughing for the next couple of trading days either. It's where Netflix is weeks, months, and more importantly years later that ultimately matters.  

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