Google and Wall Street Finally Converge

After picking up some Google (GOOG) shares yesterday afternoon as the stock plummeted from $430 to $350 on word of their disappointing earnings report, I just sold those shares, and all others I own for myself and for my clients, at $400 per share. Think of it as wanting to go out on top after a great trade.

The case can be made that Google should be held at current levels. Inclusion in the S&P 500 will be upcoming, and word is that the company will be announcing several large distribution deals with large, popular content providers in coming months. There will be positive catalysts after last night’s shocker.

After all, if Google gave quarterly guidance like other firms, investors and analysts would not have been surprised with a headline EPS number of $1.54 per share for Q4, because they would have known where tax rates were going to be. The business is still solid, taking market share and expanding into new areas. Last night’s report did not show that fundamentals have deterioriated. Rather, growth is simply slowing down due to the law of large numbers. That is the bullish case.

However, these are not the reasons I have owned the stock since $170 per share. The “value” I saw had to do with the fact that the Street didn’t fully understand what the earnings power of the company’s search franchise was. If investors knew Google could earn $8 or $9 in 2006, their IPO in August 2004 would never have been priced at $85.

Last night’s report showed me that Wall Street is no longer underestimating Google’s growth outlook. Earnings, adjusted for the tax rate increase, were a few cents above consensus, but below the highest printed estimate. Revenue came in right at the estimate. Upside from domestic search appears limited from here.

Does that mean the stock is done going up? Not necessarily. Google is investing huge amounts of money in international operations and new products outside of core search. The potential is huge, and they have the money, the people, and the momentum to conquer new markets. The next task for Google is to monetize these other products. Can they make decent money with Gmail, Google Video, Google Earth, Google China, Google Images, and the many other areas we are speculating they will enter?

Nobody knows for sure. Bulls on the stock believe they can. However, just because they are in position to do so does not mean they will. If they can monetize these product lines, growth will continue and the stock could very well go a lot higher. However, it is not as clear to me that this will happen, at least not as clear as it was that GOOG was too cheap at $170 per share.

Google is trading at 45 times this year’s projected earnings. The issues the company addressed last night (growth deceleration in search and massive spending on international markets) could very well result in more earnings disappointments in the near term.

The risk-reward outlook seems to be less compelling to me today. Maybe that will change in the future if we get another quarter or two of disappointing earnings, or if other product lines boom, but right now I’m content with selling at $400 and seeing how it all plays out.