Why Whitney Tilson is Short Netflix (NFLX) ~ market folly

Friday, December 17, 2010

Why Whitney Tilson is Short Netflix (NFLX)

Whitney Tilson has gotten his ass handed to him in his short of Netflix (NFLX). And, he'll be the first to tell you that. However, that hasn't rattled his conviction as he thinks the company is now trading at ridiculous valuations. In support of his argument, he's recently released an in-depth bear case for NFLX entitled, you guessed it: "Why We're Short Netflix."

We've covered T2 Partners' portfolio in-depth before and Netflix is now one of their main short positions. NFLX is the definition of a momentum stock. It has made the longs copious amounts of money and ripped the collective faces off of short sellers. Given the beating Tilson and his hedge fund T2 Partners have taken, why persist? He writes,

"We acknowledge that the company offers a useful, attractively-priced service to customers, is growing like wildfire, is very well managed, and has a strong balance sheet. So why on earth would we be betting against this stock? In short, because we think the valuation is extreme and that the rapid shift of its customers to streaming content (vs. mailing DVDs to customers) isn’t the beginning of an exciting, highly-profitable new world for Netflix, but rather the beginning of the end of its incredible run. In particular, we think margins will be severely compressed and growth will slow over the next year."


Tilson's main short thesis here is valuation. On that subject he argues, "By any measure, Netflix’s valuation is extremely rich. Based on yesterday’s closing price, it trades at 67.4x trailing EPS ($2.65), 63.1x the high end of the company’s EPS guidance for the full year 2010 ($2.83), and 46.7x consensus analysts’ estimates for 2011 ($3.82). It also trades at 4.6x sales. In short, the stock is priced for perfection and any misstep would likely trigger a huge selloff."

Other Reasons for Shorting NFLX

While valuation is often a logical place to start when searching for a short thesis, Tilson also hints at various other reasons to be skeptical of the company. Of these, he points out the company's business model shift, potential new competitors, the sudden resignation of the CFO, and a large potential impact on margins. Regarding the latter, the T2 Partners manager says,

"The biggest impact on margins, we believe, will come from Netflix having to pay increasing amounts for streaming content. Unlike renting DVDs, in which Netflix is protected by the First Sale Doctrine (for now, anyway – see discussion below), the laws around streaming content require that Netflix must have an agreement with the content owner to stream it. This is very bad news for Netflix because content owners are generally very savvy and are seeking to carefully control their content to maximize revenues."

In-Depth Report

Tilson elaborates on his short thesis in the in-depth report embedded below:

You can download a .pdf copy here.

While Tilson has gotten roughed up by this stock, his conviction is unwavering and it is currently T2 Partners' largest bearish bet (via short common stock and owning put options). We'll have to see if he continues to get beat up in this name (and if so, at what point he cries "Uncle") or whether his thesis comes to fruition over time. For more from this hedge fund, we've detailed T2's largest positions as well as their bullish stance on Automatic Data Processing (ADP).

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