Just a few days ago, Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger doubled-down on his Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) bullishness, reiterating his “Outperform” rating on Netflix stock and noting, “We strongly object to the idea that new competition will ‘take share from Netflix.'”
His point is well taken. Though other players have tiptoed into the streaming market, none have even come close to dethroning Netflix as the king of the industry. It boasts more regular U.S. users than any other similar or dissimilar digital video platform, and is showing similar leadership in many foreign markets.
Nothing is ever really permanent or guaranteed, however, when competition is involved. Just ask General Electric (NYSE:GE), which was also deemed unstoppable at one point in its history.
So Far, So Good
It’s not a story that needs much in the way of retelling. Netflix essentially created the streaming video industry more than a decade ago when studios realized they could monetize large libraries of otherwise unused content.
As is usually the case though, the more success Netflix enjoyed, the more content creators recognized Netflix was a middleman that may or may not be needed.
Efforts to supplant Netflix haven’t been overly impressive. Its most similar competitor, Hulu, has the backing ownership of big names like Walt Disney (NYSE:DIS) and Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA), but for a myriad of reasons hasn’t enjoyed the same degree of success.
One of those reasons is simply that Netflix was first and Hulu wasn’t.
Other television and movie outfits have tried a different approach. CBS (NYSE:CBS) created CBS All Access as a means of directly delivering exclusive CBS content, and while it’s getting traction, it’s hardly a threat to Netflix.
Still others have taken a third approach. DISH Network (NASDAQ:DISH) developed Sling TV — a so-called ‘skinny bundle’ of cable channels — that would serve as a cheaper alternative to traditional cable television, but also include enough on-demand content that Netflix subscribers would rethink their need for two monthly subscriptions. Consumers like Sling TV, but not enough to convince them to dump Netflix.
It would be naive, however, to presume any and all of these players won’t adapt as time marches on.
It’s a rarely-discussed reality, but all of Netflix’s competition does something else besides streaming video to monetize customers.
Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) offers access to a large library of video and audio content, on a subscription basis, to Prime members, but the end-goal of that program is actually selling merchandise. AT&T (NYSE:T) now owns Time Warner as well as DirecTV, and leverages both to offer over-the-top-television.
Ultimately though, the plurality of its business aim to sell television customers to wireless subscribers, and sell wireless subscriptions to TV viewers. If need be, these companies can take a loss on sales of their streaming services.
Netflix, conversely, only has one way to make money… selling access to its video content.
It’s not clear that’s a viable business model in and of itself. Although Netflix is operationally profitable, it’s still reporting negative cash flows. And, major content-spending plans suggest the company’s 2019 cash flow will be roughly as deep in the red as 2018’s appears it will be.
Yes, Disney and its soon-to-be-acquired Twenty-First Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOXA) will collectively spend even more on content this year than Netflix will. Those companies also have more ways of distributing their content, however, than just the upcoming streaming rival to Netflix called Disney+.
Movie theaters and traditional television are other ways to monetize the very same content that Netflix (at least not yet) doesn’t employ.
The true nature of Netflix’s vulnerability, however, lies in what’s not happened in earnest yet, but soon could. Once these other players recognize Netflix can’t be toppled by any single rival, they’ll recognize they can dethrone Netflix by teaming up against it.
Bottom Line for Netflix Stock
It’s not a reason to shed your Netflix stock, at least not yet. But, if the 28% setback since early October has you wondering whether you should buy Netflix stock, you may want to pre-define what your strategy and timeframe is. If it’s just a trade, NFLX will indeed likely bounce out of trouble sooner than later.
If you’re eyeing the pullback as a chance to step into Netflix for the long haul, however, you may want to chew on the possibility that the things that made Netflix shares unstoppable through this point in the company’s existence may be on the verge of radically changing.
Between competition and saturation, future growth won’t be near as easy is it’s been so far, and the company’s still bleeding cash headed into that storm.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.
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