The Future of AOL

Rumors are swirling about what Time Warner (TWX) will do with AOL. CEO Dick Parsons has stood firm that they want to keep AOL as part of the company and transition it to an advertising model from a subscription model, given that AOL’s more than 20 million members have been leaving, and will continue to do so for obvious reasons.

Today, with the Google (GOOG) secondary offering complete (and it went well by the way, with the stock trading above the $295 offering price) the market is trying to figure out which of the rumors could come to fruition. Will Google buy AOL? Will Microsoft (MSFT) buy at least a stake in it and combine AOL with MSN? Reports indicate that at the very least, all of these major online players have had discussions.

While I don’t really have any insights into what will happen, I can tell you that the media and Wall Street will almost certainly badmouth any company that partners with AOL. For years investors have basically ignored AOL as a long-term viable part of Time Warner. Analysts often say that Wall Street is valuing it at zero when trying to explain TWX’s stalled out stock price.

However, there are things to consider here. Not only would any type of deal benefit Time Warner, assuming investors are assigning no value to AOL right now, it might not be a bad deal for Google, Microsoft, or anyone else. For the first six months of 2005, AOL had revenue of $4.23 billion. Some may be surprised how profitable this business is for TWX. Adjusted operating income (before amortization and depreciation) was $1.09 billion. Clearly, AOL is worth something and that something is in the billions.

AOL has to change business models. Home users of the Internet no longer need AOL as their gateway. Advertising at AOL has an uphill battle as Google and Yahoo (YHOO) continue to gain market share. With the help of a leading Internet force, AOL could very well become even more valuable, and investors are already underestimating the value of Time Warner’s America Online unit today.

Google Shares Moving Sideways on Low Volume

Newly released Google Desktop Search 2 and its accompanying Sidebar really gives you some idea of where the company is heading. They want to take over your PC and dethrone Microsoft as the desktop monopoly. I haven’t seen software innovations like these before. It’s hard to not get excited about it, and not even just from an investor perspective, but instead simply as a computer user.

As for Google (GOOG) stock, the chart looks very bullish. After a huge move, the shares have been moving sideways on lower volume. Growth investors probably can feel comfortable about owning it down at these levels. The next 6 to 12 months should be very exciting for industry watchers everywhere.

VeriSign Shares Becoming Attractive

Shares of Internet service firm VeriSign (VRSN) have gotten crushed recently after a lackluster Q2 earnings report resulted in a broken chart. After breaking $25 per share, technical sellers have pounced. At $21 VRSN is only about $1 away from the next support level, and trades at 20 times 2005 estimates. The company should grow 15% annually for the next few years and holds $3 per share in cash and no debt. If VRSN can hold the $20 level, it looks like an attractive entry point.

Google Offering Signals Major Moves Ahead

Leave it to Google (GOOG) to get creative a year after its IPO. Today’s announcement of a $4 billion secondary will come with rampant speculation as to how the company will use the money. It’s true that Google has been hiring like crazy and expenses will likely grow faster than sales. Their cash flow can cover those expenses without selling more shares, so the more likely use for the proceeds will be larger scale acquisitions. It will be interesting to see if and who they buy, and how Wall Street reacts to the fit of such deals. The stock is down today on the news, which is expected when any company offers stock, and the P/E on 2006 estimates is about 38 times.

And I Thought the MSTR Call Was Entertaining

Via the link below you will find archives of two conference calls held this month by (OSTK) along with a slideshow to go along with each. I suggest listening to the Q2 call first, then the one about the lawsuit, in order to get a full understanding of what’s going on. Entertaining is an understatement. They will also help you understand why 52% of OSTK’s float was sold short as of July 12th, and you can’t borrow any shares as of today.

Contain Excitement Over Cisco/Nokia Rumors

Nokia (NOK) shares are up this morning as rumors are swirling that Cisco Systems (CSCO) might target them as an acquisition target in the wireless space. Before investors get too excited about the possible combination, let’s recall Cisco’s acquisition strategy.

The company does a lot of deals, but very small ones in most cases. The idea that Cisco would be interested in a mega-deal seems farfetched to me, and probably mentioned mostly for headlines. Cisco has a done a few medium size deals (The 1996 purchase of Stratacom for about $4 billion comes to mind), but CEO John Chambers paying $73 billion for Nokia would be surprising, given that Cisco is only worth $124 billion, hardly a small deal to swallow.

Nasdaq 5,000?

Why didn’t I buy shares of (BIDU) when the IPO that priced last night at $27 opened today at $66 per share? Did it really hit $151 this afternoon? Is it 1999 all over again?

Now I know this is the largest search site in China, and only 10% of that country is online today, and people are making a Google (GOOG) comparison, but keep in mind the company is now worth more than $4.3 billion and had first quarter sales of $5.1 million.

Amazon’s Value Disconnect

If you have some shares of (AMZN) I can’t help but suggest you at least consider selling some up here at $46 per share. The stock is up 20% since the company’s solid second quarter earnings report.

Now I know Amazon was supposed to be a superior retailing operation because of its online model, but if you compare it to Barnes and Noble (BKS), they’re pretty similar. It’s true that BKS isn’t going to grow 15% annually long-term, but a 2006 P/E of 48x for Amazon seems too rich to me. After all, that’s 3 times its expected growth rate!

As for the thesis of higher profit margins associated with a lack of bricks and mortar stores, Amazon’s 2004 operating margins of 6% barely nudge out Barnes and Noble’s 5% margin. Turns out that gigantic warehouses across the country cost about the same as actual storefronts.

For those who feel Google (GOOG) shares are expensive at 40x next year’s profits, Amazon stock must look even more overvalued, given it trades at 48x forward earnings and is expected to grow its business 18% next year, versus 45% for Google.

Google Hits My $1.35 Estimate

Earlier this week I postulated Google (GOOG) would report Q2 EPS of $1.35. Sure enough, tonight the company reported $1.19 in EPS including $0.16 in options expensing, which took the number up to my target. The stock is tanking after-hours as investors are always looking for more than most growth companies can deliver. Shares are down 6 percent or $18 to $296 each.

It will be interesting to see what the always valuable (read with sarcasm) Wall Street analysts say in the morning, especially after Google management warned on the call that Q3 is a seasonally weaker quarter (which we all know already). I have little doubt we will continue to see immense selling tomorrow morning, but I would expect money managers who still like the story to bargain hunt under $300 and help the stock recover some lost ground by the afternoon.

I still believe the stock will ultimately trade to 50x EPS, or $350 a share, in the next 6-9 months and as a result would not recommend panic selling alongside everyone else right now with the stock sub-$300. Google still deserves at least the same multiple as Yahoo! (YHOO) and eBay (EBAY) if not more.

Yahoo Carnage Scaring Google Bulls

Shares of Yahoo! (YHOO) are getting slammed after the company met earnings numbers for Q2 but fell short in revenue both for the most recent quarter as well as full year 2005 guidance. Given that YHOO was trading at 65 times 2005 numbers before the report, making the stock priced for perfection, such a collapse isn’t surprising and shows us what happens when the market’s most expensive stocks don’t knock the cover off the ball.

On to Google (GOOG). Google is weak also as investors surmise that Yahoo’s shortfall could hamper Google’s ability to beat estimates when it reports on Thursday. While this is entirely possible, I would not be surprised at all to see Google beat bottom line numbers. Why? Well, YHOO reported 13 cents for Q2, same as the prior quarter. Google reported $1.29 per share in Q1, but the estimate for Q2 is only $1.20 per share.

Google’s higher growth rate, compared with Yahoo, also might allow it to show sequential growth in EPS for Q2. The highest estimate on the Street is $1.34. I think GOOG could very well report $1.35+ on Thursday, despite the weak YHOO report. Maybe they are taking share from Yahoo.

Would that even be enough to boost the stock price meaningfully? Maybe, maybe not, but I would rather be long Google than Yahoo and I doubt we’ll see as much disappointment in the GOOG report as we have with YHOO. Hopefully we can see GOOG maintain the $310 level throughout the week. Given what we know right now, that might be a better case scenario than we thought as early as this morning when people were positioning for a Yahoo beat.