Walt Disney Co (NYSE:DIS) stock hasn’t moved in over three years now. Since the beginning of 2015, Disney stock has traded almost without exception between $90 and $120 per share. And at the moment, it sits just south of the midpoint of that range.
That’s likely to change in the next couple of years. Disney has significant strategic and operational decisions ahead of it, as it considers M&A and rolls out its new streaming service. With the merger between AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T) and Time Warner Inc (NYSE:TWX) now all but assured, Disney is the next media titan to make its big move.
The question for Disney stock, then, is whether the opportunities are big enough for the company to finally start creating consistent shareholder value. I’ve long been skeptical on that point — and I still am. But if Disney stock is going to start moving higher, now is the time.
Disney, Fox, Sky and Comcast
With the AT&T-Time Warner deal approved, it seems likely that future media acquisitions will pass regulatory muster. And that in turn opens the door for consolidation.
Disney should be front and center from the jump. Reports suggest that Comcast Corporation (NASDAQ:CMCSA) is set to formally top Disney’s bid for assets from Twenty-First Century Fox Inc (NASDAQ:FOXA). Comcast’s reported all-cash offer could trump that of Disney.
And so right off the bat, Disney could have a tough decision to make. It’s possible Fox will go with the Disney offer anyway, which should have an easier regulatory path, given Disney’s distribution offerings are in their infancy. But Disney also may have to raise its bid, one possible reason Disney stock fell more than 1% in after-hours trading after the Time Warner decision was announced.
Comcast and Disney also likely will have a battle over the UK’s Sky Plc (ADR) (OTCMKTS:SKYAY), potentially independent of the Fox talks, even though Fox owns 39% of Sky at the moment. That asset could build out Disney’s international content as it looks to build its streaming business.
If Disney wants Fox, it will likely to have to pay up. And it may have to do so at least partly in cash, after initially making an all-stock offer. That in turn could require more debt on the Disney balance sheet, and perhaps less flexibility to acquire additional content going forward. If Disney steps away, it still has options, but at the moment, they look like consolation prizes.
Options Beyond Fox
Last month, I detailed some of the other potential acquisitions Disney could make. One issue of late is that two long-speculated targets — Twitter Inc (NYSE:TWTR) and Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX) — both have seen huge gains in their share prices. Indeed, Netflix — a rumored target back in 2016 — now has a higher market capitalization than Disney.
Still, there are targets out there. Electronic Arts Inc. (NASDAQ:EA) could give Disney a presence in the fast-growing gaming space. The film unit of Sony Corp (ADR) (NYSE:SNE) would provide the Spider Man franchise. Viacom, Inc. (NASDAQ:VIA) unit Nickelodeon could add kid-friendly content, though that company has a legal mess of its own right now.
The problem is that none of these options seem nearly as attractive. Moving into gaming doesn’t allow the streaming services to compete with Netflix and Hulu. A Sony Pictures deal doesn’t move the needle against a $150-billion market cap; the same is true of Nickelodeon.
The Fox deal is the best one for Disney. And if it doesn’t work out, the market may not react well.
Can Streaming Offset Cord Cutting?
That in turn puts quite a bit of pressure on Disney’s streaming offerings. The Theme Parks business continues to be solid but drives less than one-third of profit. The Consumer Products business has been stagnant for years. Growth in Studio Entertainment (i.e., films) has slowed, and weak results from Solo: A Star Wars Story could portend weakness in that franchise going forward.
For Disney’s earnings growth to accelerate, the networks are going to have to lead the way. I still believe, as I argued in March, that the headwind from ESPN will be too much to overcome. But if ESPN’s standalone offering, along with the Disney-branded streaming service, can help subscribers and margins grow, the pressure from cord cutting could be offset.
CBS Corporation (NYSE:CBS) has had success on that front on a smaller scale. If Disney similarly can profit from — and not just survive — the shift away from cable, perhaps Disney stock can get out its funk.
Is Disney Stock a Buy?
I’m still skeptical. ESPN, in particular, benefits from cable subscribers who drive as much as $10 per month in revenue while rarely, if ever, watching the service. ABC and Freeform aren’t performing particularly well, either. Disney’s streaming services, at the moment, still seem more like niche offerings than Netflix or Hulu.
Disney simply seems to need a lot to go right over the next couple of years. It needs to execute in terms of launching and marketing its streaming offerings. M&A has to be perfect — and at the right price. If it works, Disney stock should break higher. If it doesn’t, investors probably give up on Disney’s growth prospects, and a multiyear low would be in the stock’s future.
As of this writing, Vince Martin is long shares of CBS Corporation and has no positions in any other securities mentioned.