Shares of beaten and bruised Chinese streaming giant iQiyi (NASDAQ:IQ) have bounced back recently, rallying more than 20% over the past month to four-month highs thanks to easing U.S.-China trade tensions, rebounding Chinese economic activity, and better-than-expected third-quarter profit numbers.
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But, when it comes to the recent rally in IQ stock, investors should proceed with caution.
Sure, things are getting better for iQiyi. Long story short, the economic fundamentals in China should improve over the next few quarters, and this will create a rising tide which lifts all boats, iQiyi included. At the same time, iQiyi’s margins — which have been tumbling for several quarters — are showing signs of stabilizing.
But, things aren’t getting that much better. iQiyi’s revenue growth trajectory remains challenged by a lack of fiscal demand for streaming content in China. Heightened competition in the digital ad market also presents a risk to sustained revenue growth at scale. Content costs are still swelling, as are research and development costs. Margins are still hugely negative, and dropping. Profits are still a long ways out — and the pathway to sustainable profits lacks clarity.
All in all, there are major problems underlying iQiyi stock, meaning that recent strength in the stock may not be all that sustainable.
iQiyi’s Fundamentals Are Improving
The fundamentals underlying IQ stock have improved substantially over the past few months.
It all started a month ago, when it became clear that the vicious U.S.-China trade war cycle was coming to an end. Specifically, thanks to both sides agreeing to work on a series of mini trade deals, investors broadly came to the conclusion that U.S.-China trade tensions were in the early innings of permanent deescalation. If true, that means that the biggest headwind to China’s economy is set to ease going forward, and easing therein should drive a rebound in China’s economic activity.
Naturally, this rebound will provide a tailwind for iQiyi’s revenue growth trajectory, which has flattened out over the past quarters alongside the Chinese economy. Of note, businesses should spend more on advertising, providing a boost to the digital ad market, from which iQiyi draws a big source of revenues. Also, consumers should be more willing to pay up for streaming content, which should provide a nice lift to iQiyi’s subscription revenues.
At the same time, iQiyi recently reported third quarter profit numbers which topped expectations. Importantly, operating margins only dropped 80 basis points year-over-year in the quarter, versus several hundred basis points of compression in each of the past few quarters. The implication is that margins are finally starting to stabilize, and that’s a positive development in this company’s pathway to profitability.
Big picture: iQiyi’s micro and macro fundamentals have simultaneously improved over the past month, and this improvement is why IQ stock has rattled off a 20%-plus gain over that stretch.
iQiyi Stock Still Has Problems
Although the fundamentals here have improved, they still aren’t good, and that means there is reason for caution when it comes to IQ stock.
iQiyi’s revenue growth trajectory is rapidly decelerating. Sure, China economic activity may rebound. But, at the current moment, we are looking at a company that has gone from 43% revenue growth in Q1, to 15% revenue growth in Q2, to 7% revenue growth in Q3, to a projected 1% rise in revenues in Q4. Behind this slowdown, the ad business is tumbling, while the subscription business is adding users, but at very low price points.
A rebound in Chinese economic activity doesn’t guarantee much help on either front. Even if businesses do spend more on ads, the competitive landscape in China’s digital ad market is so intense that iQiyi may not win over many of those new ad dollars. Further, China’s consumers have remained largely healthy despite the economic slowdown, so if they weren’t willing to pay up for iQiyi content over the past few months, they likely won’t pay up anytime soon, either.
On the margin front, content costs are running higher because good content is needed to attract new subscribers and keep old ones, while R&D costs are also running higher thanks to increased headcount growth. Because these costs continue to swell against the backdrop of flattening revenues, negative profit margins are heading even lower.
Until the revenue growth trajectory turns around — and there’s no telling when it will — there is a tremendous lack of visibility as to when iQiyi’s margins will ever improve, let alone peak into positive territory. So long as this remains the case, it will be tough for any strength in IQ stock to find fundamental support.
Bottom Line on IQ Stock
IQ stock has shown signs of strength of recently. But, this strength appears to based on hope, not fundamentals. The fundamentals here remain weak, dominated by the notion that iQiyi is a slowing growth company running huge losses, without a clear pathway to ever producing a profit.
Does a stock with those fundamentals deserve to trade at 3.5-times trailing sales? No. So, when it comes it IQ stock, proceed with caution.
As of this writing, Luke Lango did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.
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