It’s not difficult to understand why some investors see Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ:ATVI) as attractive at current levels. After all, Activision stock is much cheaper than it used to be, having dropped some 47% from its early October highs.
And while the company’s 2019 guidance was disappointing, ATVI stock still has some positive catalysts. The gaming market is still growing, and Activision Blizzard can tap into that growth with three attractive franchises.
Moreover, Activision stock traded above $80 just a few months ago. It’s one of the giants of gaming, along with Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:EA) and Take-Two Interactive (NASDAQ:TTWO). Some of the company’s headwinds should fade, and it should resume growing.
But I’ve been skeptical about ATVI stock for a long time, and even after its pullback, I’m not ready to turn bullish on Activision stock. Trading at 21 times the company’s 2019 earnings per share guidance, excluding certain items, ATVI is not necessarily cheap. And from a broader standpoint, I’m still not sure whether Activision’s growth can accelerate going forward.
For the past decade, ATVI ‘s profits haven’t increased much, especially in metrics other than earnings per share. Looking forward, ATVI still needs to show that it can raise its bottom line before investors should jump into Activision stock.
Two Brilliant Moves
Back in 2010, Activision generated 79 cents of adjusted EPS. In 2019, the company provided EPS guidance of $2.10, again excluding certain items.
Over the nine years, that’s an 11.4% compound annual growth rate (CAGR), even though the company is expecting its EPS to decline sharply this year from the $2.72 of adjusted EPS it reported in 2018. Still, averaging annual EPS growth of more than 10% over a decade seems to suggest that Activision’s business is performing well, while its profits are steadily growing.
That’s not really the case, however. Over that stretch, Activision’s EPS spiked twice. In 2013, ATVI repurchased Activision stock from its former majority shareholder, Vivendi SA (OTCMKTS:VIVHY). That deal boosted Activision’s EPS by over 25%. Three years later, ATVI bought Candy Crush developer King Digital Entertainment for $5.9 billion.
Both deals were brilliant. ATVI paid $13.60 per share for the ATVI stock it acquired from Vivendi. Activision stock, of course, is up more than 200% from those levels even after its recent declines. And the King deal was risky, as many observers thought that Candy Crush’s revenue was poised to decline. Instead, its bookings have continued to grow, while the success of Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA) has further demonstrated the resilience of the social-gaming space.
Again, both deals were great moves by Activision management. But those moves aside, the company’s business simply hasn’t been that impressive.
Activision Stock’s Growth Problem
Back in 2010, ATVI generated adjusted net income of $991 million. In 2015, the figure had actually dropped to $975 million. But since the Vivendi deal shrank the amount of Activision stock outstanding, the company’s EPS rose to $1.32 in 2015, versus the 79 cents that it had reported five years earlier.
King, meanwhile,added $600 million to ATVI’s net profit, while tax reform tacked on over $100 million in 2018. Even if ATVI’s business doesn’t grow at all this year, its net income would still reach about $1.7 billion.
However, the company’s EPS guidance indicates that its net income will come in at just $1.63 billion. Even accounting for the fact that Activision historically has guided conservatively and excluding King’s contribution, ATVI will probably wind up generating close to zero pre-tax profit growth between 2010 and 2019.
That’s nine years in which the economy has been good. Additionally, the increased popularity of digital downloads should be boosting the company’s revenue and margins, as middlemen like retailer GameStop (NYSE:GME) have been cut out of many transactions. And demand for video games – both in the U.S. and overseas – has steadily risen.
With all those benefits, the earnings of Activision Blizzard’s business has not grown this decade. ATVI made two great deals, but its business has been stagnant.
What Can Boost ATVI Stock?
In that context, the question going forward is: what changes can provide a catalyst for Activision stock? And I’m not sure that Activision has provided an answer.
ATVI did announce last month that it would restructure and lay off roughly 775 of its employees. That should save it some money, but hardly enough to move the needle. Even $100 million of savings would only boost its earnings by about 6%. And the company’s plan to “refocus its resources on its largest opportunities,” as the company put it in an 8-K filing, raises yet another question. What, exactly, are those opportunities?
The company’s core franchises – Candy Crush, Call of Duty, and World of Warcraft – still are performing reasonably well. For a long time, many people have thought that World of Warcraft, for instance, has been poised to decline. But according to Activision’s 10-K, the game’s net bookings rose year-over-year in 2018. The same is true for the company’s other two key franchises.
Still, those games aren’t growing all that quickly. And since they only account for 58% of its total revenue, they certainly won’t be profitable enough to support the company’s 20+ P/E multiple.
Meanwhile, the rest of the company’s portfolio appears to be struggling. Overwatch generated over 10% of the company’s revenue in 2017 and less than 10% of it in 2018, according to the company’s SEC filing. The company stunned investors in January by basically giving away Destiny. Hearthstone, and Diablo has faded.
And now Activision Blizzard is blaming the decline of its earnings in 2019 to a light slate of new products and responding by laying off employees. Was Activision carrying dead weight for years? Or are there simply not that many opportunities for ATVI to chase?
In any event, Activision needs an answer to the broader question: what can jump start its growth? The profit growth of its old games isn’t going to suddenly start to accelerate. Its newer games are declining, and it doesn’t have another hit on the horizon right now.
That’ outlook is not good enough to support the current valuation of Activision stock. Unless Activision’s management can convince investors that it has a better plan, Activision stock probably won’t rally.
As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.