Netflix shares dipped as much as 3.5% Tuesday, after Wall Street firm Stifel downgraded the company’s stock based on uncertainty about the subscription-video leader’s U.S. growth trajectory.
Netflix is the dominant global SVOD platform, with more than 53 million members in nearly 50 countries now streaming more than 2 billion hours of video per month, Stifel analysts led by Scott Devitt wrote in a research note. But the company’s third quarter 2014 results — in which it missed subscriber-addition targets — raised concerns that domestic growth will continue to slow in the near-term, the analysts said in assigning a “hold” rating on the stock (down from the firm’s previous “buy”).
“Our concern in the near-term is the U.S. business may have begun to slow before international can fully pick up the growth slack,” the analysts wrote in a note. That transition “could lead to a period in which overall subscriber growth may not exceed investor expectations — historically not a great sign for the stock.”
During the three months ended Sept. 30, Netflix added 980,000 streaming subscribers in the United States after previously saying it anticipated adding 1.33 million in the period.
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Those “near-term subscriber dynamics keep us on the sidelines,” Stifel’s analysts wrote, noting Netflix’s penetration rate in the U.S. of about 41% of broadband household is already high.
In announcing Q3 results, Netflix suggested the subscriber miss was due to a delayed effect from the price increase in May for new subscribers, by $1, to $8.99 monthly. At an investment conference this month, Netflix CFO David Wells also said the company may have overestimated net adds for the most recent quarter because the “novelty factor” of original series launched in 2013 had worn off.
Still, Netflix is on pace to add 5.5 million to 6 million net subscribers in the U.S. for 2014, compared with a net 6.3 million domestically in 2013, according to Wells. “We still think we have plenty of growth left in the U.S. market,” he said at RBC Capital Markets’ 2014 Technology, Internet, Media and Telecommunications Conference.
Despite Stifel’s near-term caution, the analysts said Netflix’s long-term story “remains compelling.” The addition of Disney films in 2016 — for which Netflix has secured exclusive pay-TV window rights — as well as “box-office disruption” will potentially drive U.S. subscriber to exceed expectations in the future, the analysts said. By 2020, Stifel forecasts 55 million Netflix subs in the U.S. with international customers approaching 58 million.
The Stifel downgrade came as the firm transferred Netflix coverage from analyst Ben Mogil to Devitt’s team. Stifel currently has a fair-value estimate of $380 per share on Netflix; the stock closed at $356.47 per share Monday and was trading below $350 by midday.