Does anyone remember the "It" marketing campaign by eBay
In short, eBay is a good company at a crossroads, not the great speedster that today's investors are overpaying for.
If you don't believe me, let's let the money do the talking. The dot-com heavy posted $1.7 billion in free cash flow last year, a 10.1% advance from its showing a year earlier (it should be noted that free cash flow for 2005 took into account lease payments and the sale of a corporate aircraft). Things only got worse after that, with free cash flow inching a mere 6.2% higher year over year in the first quarter of 2007. That is troublesome deceleration for a company trading at an unforgiving 25 times trailing free cash flow.
If you prefer to consume your fundamentals in the form of top- and bottom-line pills, the dosage is sweeter but the prognosis is still the same. Yes, eBay expects to grow revenue by 20% to 25% this year. With its perpetually acquisitive appetite, I should point out that the growth isn't all organic.
Adjusted earnings -- and I'm leaving out fat items like the company's liberal stock-based compensation charges, because that's the way eBay prefers to dish out its guidance -- are expected to grow by 24% to 28% this year.
Sounds good? It should, though the stock is still trading at a higher trailing multiple, and one should always tread carefully when results are cosmetically enhancing the more lethargic growth in free cash flow.
And then the verbs came crashing down
Things will get interesting when eBay posts its second-quarter results next week. There are already a few reasons to be worried. CEO Meg Whitman started selling some shares last month. She hadn't unloaded eBay stock in four years. American Technology Research is also projecting a 3% dip in global auction listings on eBay.
Is eBay becoming less relevant? Regardless of what the product-placement pitch in Transformers may have led you to believe, eBay just isn't as iconic as it used to be. Folks are turning to free online classified listings through Craigslist, Facebook, and Google
Why else would eBay have launched its own free listings site -- Kijiji -- earlier this month? Why else would it have slashed its fees this month in a rare summer promotion, when annual fee hikes are the norm? Why else would eBay load up its pages with third-party ads through Google and Yahoo!
Sure, things are going a lot better at eBay's PayPal, but it's got Google Checkout to battle. Google isn't going to bow out the way others like Yahoo! and Citigroup
Skype? Despite closing in on 200 million downloads, this is still a company that has generated just shy of $235 million in net revenue over the past four quarters. It's growing quickly, but it may never justify eBay agreeing to shell out as much as $4.2 billion for the online voice chat service.
So what is eBay to do? Most of its acquisitions -- from StubHub to Half.com -- were puzzle pieces acquired to enhance its namesake marketplace. PayPal? eBay bought it after it proved to be a more popular transactional platform than its own Billpoint. Skype? eBay explained its surprising purchase by stirring up visions of voice-enabled marketplace efficiencies.
None of this is playing out the way eBay thought it would. Its auction marketplace is stuck in the mud, and the rest of its verb-fueled horsepower may suffer from a lack of direction as the company tries to fix its sluggish flagship platform.
This is not a company you want to overpay for. No, it's not worth as little as a free Kijiji ad. However, you may want to follow Whitman's insider-selling lead here. If you're still looking for "it," your best bet is to start looking elsewhere.
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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a satisfied eBay user, with the 172 positive feedback rating to show for it. He does not own shares in any of the companies in this story. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early. The Fool has a disclosure policy.