Sticking To Your Convictions As A Value Investor Is Hard, Just Ask Whitney Tilson About Netflix

Back in December, Whitney Tilson, a fairly well known value investor with T2 Partners, published a letter outlining a compelling bear case for Netflix (NFLX), a stock he was shorting at around $180 per share. After seeing the position go against him, Tilson was feeling pressure from his clients. After all, shorting a high-flying technology company with a cult-like following, as it is soaring in value, can be a tough psychological exercise. Tilson’s argument for betting against Netflix was clear, concise, and thorough. He boiled it down to this, in his December piece entitled Why We’re Short Netflix:

“We don’t think there are any easy answers for Netflix. It is already having to pay much more for streaming content and may soon have to pay for bandwidth usage as well, which will result in both margin compression (Netflix’s margins are currently double Amazon’s) and also increased prices to its customers, which will slow growth.

Under this scenario, Netflix will continue to be a profitable and growing company, but not nearly profitable and rapidly growing enough to justify today’s stock price, which is why we believe it will fall dramatically over the next year.”

The main bearish argument seemed reasonable at the time; customers were moving away from DVD by mail and towards streaming content. In order to secure content for their streaming library, Netflix would have to pay more than in the past, when they could just buy a DVD once and send it out to dozens of customers. But at the time subscribers were signing up at a record pace and were highly satisfied.

In February Tilson threw in the towel. The stock had continued its ascent, rising to $220. Again, Tilson went public with his changed view, writing a letter called Why We Covered Our Netflix Short. The bulls loved the fact that Tilson was admitting defeat. The stock continued soaring and hit an all-time high of $304 in July. Tilson summed up his reasoning as follows:

Our short thesis was predicated on the following stream of logic:

1) Netflix’s future depends on its streaming video business (rather than its traditional DVD-by-mail business);

2) The company’s streaming library is weak, which would lead to customer dissatisfaction and declining usage;

3) This would either cause subscriber growth to wither or force Netflix to pay large amounts to license more content, which would compress margins and profits;

4) Either of these two outcomes would crush the share price.

We are no longer convinced that #2 and #3 are true.

This was interesting because very little in the way of fundamentals had changed at that time. Tilson cited three reasons why he was doubting his earlier bearish thesis:

1) The company reported a very strong quarter that weakened key pillars of our investment thesis, especially as it relates to margins;

2) We conducted a survey, completed by more than 500 Netflix subscribers, that showed significantly higher satisfaction with and usage of Netflix’s streaming service than we anticipated (the results of our survey are posted; and 

3) Our article generated a great deal of feedback, including an open letter from Netflix’s CEO, Reed Hastings, some of which caused us to question a number of our assumptions.

In hindsight these reasons seem even more suspect than they did at the time, but it is worth pointing out the mistakes anyway so value investors can learn from each other.

First, Tilson cited that Netflix reported a strong fourth quarter. Tilson’s bearish view was never predicated on Netflix blowing the next quarter. It was the longer term trend of rising content costs, which would give Netflix two choices; maintain a weak streaming library and risk losing customers, or pay up for strong content and be forced to either raise prices (which would hurt subscriber growth and reduce profitability) or keep prices steady and lose profitability that way. The fact that Netflix reported one strong quarter really didn’t make a dent in the bearish thesis.

Second, Tilson surveyed 500 Netflix customers and found they were quite happy with the service. Again, his thesis didn’t claim that current customers were unhappy (after all, they were signing up in droves in part because streaming was free with your subscription at the time). Rather, it was about the future and how those customers would react if Netflix had to either raise prices or offer less in the way of viewing choices.

Third, and this one was perhaps the most bizarre, Tilson was evidently persuaded by Netflix’s own CEO, Reed Hastings. I find this one odd because I have never seen a CEO on TV or elsewhere who was publicly negative about their company’s prospects, regardless of how good or bad things were going at the time. In fact, many investors believe it is a huge red flag when CEOs of public companies take time to personally rebuff bearish claims from short sellers. Hastings did just that, responding to Tilson’s short case with a letter of his own that suggested that he cover his short immediately. Generally speaking, the fact that the CEO of a company you are short thinks you are wrong is not a good reason to cover your short.

And so we had a situation where Tilson’s short thesis appeared sound, albeit unresolved, but the stock price kept soaring and he was feeling heat for the position, which was losing money. Then, just a few months later, Netflix decided to raise their prices and customers canceled in droves. Tilson’s bearish thesis proved exactly correct, but he no longer had the short bet to capitalize on it.

Today in pre-market trading Netflix stock is down about 30% to $83 per share after forecasting higher than expected customer cancellations, lower than expected fourth quarter profits, and operating losses during the first half of 2012 due to higher content costs, slowing subscriber growth, and expenses for the company’s expansion into the U.K. and Ireland. Analysts were expecting Netflix to earn $6 per share in 2012 and in July investors were willing to pay 50 times that figure for the stock. Now it is unclear if Netflix will even be profitable in 2012 after forecasting losses for the first “few quarters” of next year.

This is a perfect example of why value investing is a tougher investment strategy to implement than many realize, but offers tremendous opportunity to outperform. By definition you have to take a contrarian view; either going long a stock that people don’t like, or shorting a stock that everyone loves. The bottom line is that your analysis is what is important. If you do your homework and get it right, the market will reward you. It may take more than a quarter or two, but you need to stick to your convictions unless there is extremely solid evidence that you are wrong. In this case, Tilson’s bearish thesis was never really debunked by the CEO’s defensive posture or the fact that customers were satisfied when they were getting streaming content for free. In hindsight, Tilson understood the outlook for Netflix better than the company’s own CEO. However, both are likely feeling very uneasy this morning.

Interestingly, the question now may be whether there is a point at which Netflix stock becomes too cheap and warrants consideration on the long side. I suspect the answer is yes, though probably not quite yet. If the stock keeps falling and we see $60 or $70 per share, maybe the time will be right for value investors like Tilson to go against the crowd again and buy the stock when everybody hates it.

Full Disclosure: No position in Netflix at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

UPDATE: 3:00PM ET on 10/25

The WSJ is reporting that Tilson initiated a small long position in Netflix this morning:

Mr. Tilson tells us in an e-mail that he bought the stock this morning after it tumbled 35%:

“It’s been frustrating to see our original investment thesis validated, yet not profit from it. It certainly highlights the importance of getting the timing right and maintaining your conviction even when the market moves against you. The core of our short thesis was always Netflix’s high valuation. In light of the stock’s collapse, we now think it’s cheap and today established a small long position. We hope it gets cheaper so we can add to it.”