I’ve been mostly skeptical toward Disney (NYSE:DIS), and so far, mostly wrong. Optimism toward the company’s Disney+ streaming service sent Disney stock soaring in April. More recently, solid fourth-quarter results and a fast start to the streaming launch have sent the the stock’s price to new all-time highs.
To be sure, I understand the bull case for Disney stock, and the streaming opportunity is real. Disney+ is beating rivals AT&T (NYSE:T) and Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) to market. Its nearly full ownership of Hulu and its massive library make Disney the strongest competitor to Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) on a global basis.
And given that Netflix has a market capitalization of $130 billion, more than half that of Disney, a streaming business that rivals or exceeds that of Netflix obviously can have a material impact on the price of DIS stock.
That said, there long have been concerns about the rest of Disney’s business. ESPN revenue and profits have stalled out amid cord-cutting pressure. Other networks like ABC are feeling the same pinch. The licensing business has softened, and Disney’s parks business faces cyclical risk in year eleven of an economic expansion.
The concern with Disney stock since the Disney+ launch has been that investors have forgotten about those issues. That’s particularly dangerous given that Disney+ itself is likely to exacerbate the weakness in the legacy business.
In that context, I’m still skeptical toward the company’s stock. Yes, streaming is a big deal for DIS, but investors need to focus on the rest of the business as well.
Q4 Earnings Were Better Than You Think
Disney’s fourth-quarter report, which beat consensus estimates, was well received. But expectations aside, the quarter at first glance looks close to disastrous. The company’s non-GAAP earnings per share declined 28% year over year, and fell 19% in fiscal 2019 as a whole. Free cash flow in FY19 was just $1.1 billion — down dramatically from $9.8 billion the year before.
Of course, there are a number of moving parts affecting earnings and cash flow. The deal with Comcast that brought Hulu under Disney’s control also brought Hulu’s operating losses onto Disney’s balance sheet in full. Twenty-First Century Fox’s movie studio posted losses in both the third and fourth quarters. Those two factors alone reduced adjusted EPS by 47 cents, per commentary on the Q4 conference call. Spending behind the Disney+ launch took off another 18 cents or so, based on operating income discussion.
Given that adjusted EPS declined by just 41 cents — 10 cents better than the average Wall Street estimate — upon closer inspection, Q4 looks reasonably strong. Hulu’s losses will reverse over time. Fox simply had a bad quarter. Aside from these relatively one-time impacts, Disney is still growing earnings. And that seems to set the company, and the stock, up well now that Disney+ has officially launched.
…But Concerns Persist
That said, looking closer, the old worries persist. Per the call, ESPN profits declined. Cable Networks profits actually declined in the quarter, as the drop in ESPN earnings more than offset the benefit of FX and National Geographic, acquired in the Fox deal. Broadcasting profits, too, declined due largely to weakness at ABC.
Bear in mind that the Media Networks group, even adjusting for restructuring and acquisition costs, accounted for over 40% of total earnings in fiscal 2019. (The exact figure is difficult to calculate until Disney files its annual report.) That significant contribution to overall earnings is the key reason why Disney stock traded sideways for almost four years before the Disney+ launch.
Problems in Media Networks aren’t going away. ESPN+ has been a point of focus, but closed the quarter with just 3.5 million subscribers. The ESPN network may well have lost that many subscribers just in fiscal 2019 (here, too, the actual figure hasn’t yet been disclosed), and at significantly higher monthly revenue than the $5 the company charges for ESPN+.
TV weakness is a significant headwind for Disney earnings. And it’s likely that Disney+ itself will accelerate cord-cutting, and add to that headwind. Cable stocks like AMC Networks (NASDAQ:AMCX) and Discovery Communications (NASDAQ:DISCA, NASDAQ:DISCB) trade well off their highs because of precisely that trend.
Meanwhile, Fox is off to a difficult start under Disney ownership. The film studio in Q3 reverted to a $170 million loss from an estimated $180 million profit the year before. According to the Q4 call, it lost $100 million more in the fourth quarter than it had in Q4 2018. Ad Astra and Dark Phoenix both flopped.
Streaming is important to Disney. It’s likely the most important business for Disney stock, as I wrote in a detailed piece this summer. But the other businesses matter too. And they have not performed well in recent quarters, or in Q4.
The Case For and Against DIS Stock
Again, investors have shrugged off those concerns for some seven months now, and continue to do so. And, again, to some extent, I understand why. If Disney+ really is a Netflix competitor, let alone a Netflix killer, it could well be worth over $100 billion. That suggests the rest of Disney is “only” valued at roughly $160 billion.
Those non-streaming businesses in fiscal 2019 probably generated around $13 billion in adjusted net income in fiscal 2019. Again, between impairments, purchase accounting for the Fox deal and spending behind not just Disney+ but Hulu and ESPN+, it’s difficult to pin down a precise figure. But it seems likely that adjusted EPS would have come in nicely above $7, and closer to $8. The latter figure would imply over $14 billion in profits. Assign a reasonable 15x multiple to that number and Disney as a whole would be worth over $300 billion.
That in turn implies a stock price above $170 for DIS against the current $148. And investors may well see the strength in Parks, the dominance of the studio business and the intellectual property as supporting an even higher non-streaming multiple, and thus a higher Disney stock price. Meanwhile, Disney’s first-day haul of 10 million Disney+ subscribers is another piece of evidence to suggest that the service can be a juggernaut and a real threat to Netflix.
But there’s a lot that needs to go right there. Bear in mind that Disney+ has a five-year target of 90 million subscribers, at which point Netflix should be nearing 300 million. Disney still generates significant profit from home video, some of which will be cannibalized by Disney+ subscribers who no longer buy individual movies. It’s foregoing licensing revenue from Netflix in bringing back its content.
Even if Disney+ is worth $100 billion-plus, and the rest of the business declines, I’m skeptical that Disney stock should be valued at much more than the current price, if that. And from that standpoint, Q4 appears less encouraging that investors seem to believe.
Again, I’ve been wrong before, and long-term investors betting on Disney and CEO Bob Iger haven’t been disappointed. But there are concerns here, and I remain skeptical that streaming alone can fix them.
As of this writing, Vince Martin did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.