Disney (NYSE:DIS) is headed into an interesting stretch, which begins with Disney earnings on Thursday afternoon. Owners of Disney stock no doubt hope the next few years are better than the last few: DIS stock basically hasn’t moved for the last three years.
There are reasons to believe that will change. Disney’s acquisition of assets from Twenty-First Century Fox (NASDAQ:FOX, NASDAQ:FOXA) only adds to its powerhouse content portfolio. The company’s own streaming service should launch late next year. The moves position Disney to adapt to the quickly changing media world, and to reassert its leadership in the industry.
Investors clearly have some optimism toward the efforts. Disney stock threatened all-time highs last month, reaching its highest levels since 2015. And DIS stock has held up better in the recent sell-off than most, dropping less than 4% from those highs.
But I’d be careful with the stock ahead of Disney earnings this week. Disney does have an interesting strategy long term, but it’s a strategy that is going to take years to show real results, as I wrote in September. With fiscal Q4 earnings on deck, investors may be reminded that the long-term potential gains may require some short-term pain in terms of earnings, and the Disney stock price.
Expectations for Q4 look reasonably aggressive. Analysts are expecting 7.4% revenue growth, which is nearly in line with Q3 results (that admittedly were seen as disappointing). Earnings-per-share are projected to rise 24%, albeit with quite a bit of help from a lower tax rate.
But it’s unlikely that the headline numbers are going to be all that important here. For the quarter itself, one key area of focus will be ESPN subscriber numbers, which have been a long-running problem for Disney stock. ESPN is the backbone of a Media Networks segment that generates over 40% of the company’s operating income, and it continues to go in the wrong direction. Subscriber weakness has hurt DIS stock in the past, and it is the most likely culprit to do so again in the Q4 numbers.
All that said, the release is going to be less about fiscal 2018 and more about 2019 and beyond. The focus will be on the company’s strategy going forward. Can the new ESPN streaming service offset at least some of the pain from cord-cutting losses? Is Disney making progress on selling Fox’s regional sports networks, where both Fox itself and Sinclair Broadcast Group (NASDAQ:SBGI) have been floated as potential buyers?
Is the streaming service still on track for a late 2019 launch, as CEO Bob Iger has previously guided? How will it be priced, and how does Disney plan to compete with Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX), Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and new offerings from AT&T (NYSE:T)?
It’s the answers to those questions that likely will drive the post-earnings trading in Disney stock. And that trading itself could establish the trajectory for DIS stock heading into 2019.
Will Investors Stay Patient With DIS Stock?
The risk to Disney stock coming out of earnings isn’t necessarily relative to the long-term view here. As recent strength in DIS stock shows, investors have faith in Iger’s strategy. But the question is whether Disney earnings remind those same investors — and analysts — that the strategy here is going to take years to play out.
Notably, analyst estimates for fiscal 2019 still project about 6% year-over-year growth in EPS. There’s some residual help from tax reform in Q1, admittedly, but that number seems potentially aggressive. Consensus already has come down over the past couple of months, but Iger himself has noted that fiscal 2019 profits are likely to take a hit. Disney is pulling content from Netflix for its own service and it will forgo those high-margin revenues in the meantime.
To be sure, it’s not as if Disney stock is going to plunge. The options market is pricing in a 4%+ move next week, and DIS stock isn’t the type to move double-digits after earnings.
But DIS stock struggled out of the Q3 report. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a repeat this time around. And if Disney stock does struggle this week, that may set up more range-bound trading until the benefits of its strategy shift become clearer … or closer.
Again, the long-term strategy is intriguing. But in the meantime, ESPN is unlikely to recover, and fiscal 2019 expectations may be too high. The focus has been on that long-term strategy, but Disney earnings may highlight those near-term issues, and test investor patience.
As of this writing, Vince Martin did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.