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    市盈率高達130倍,Netflix值這么多嗎?

    Shawn Tully 2019年08月12日

    要想保住自己流媒體超級巨星的地位,Netflix需要財務嚴格的自律。

    Netflix曾經在自己主導的領域里向用戶提供優秀作品,然而它所在的行業很快就會變得艱難而擁擠,還會有大型“入侵者”對它的地位發起挑戰。

    從7月17日情況就能夠輕易看到這一變化——多年來,Netflix首次披露用戶增長緩慢,而且就在今年第二季度。巨大的沖擊隨之而來,投資者紛紛拋出Netflix股票,造成其市值在隨后三天內蒸發了240億美元,或者15.2%。不過,盡管出現暴跌,但Netflix的估值相對于依然低迷的業績而言仍然十分龐大(其股價已經反彈,但仍然比7月初的高點低13%)。為了給自己的130倍市盈率正名,Netflix需要繼續展現出動作片主角般的英雄氣概。

    令人失望的消息是Netflix的用戶僅增長了270萬人,只有該公司預期的一半,而且美國用戶數量下滑,這讓人懷疑Netflix能否快速增長并賺取足夠利潤,以體現其1450億美元的價值。主要問題在于Netflix仍然在萎縮的負現金流和它持續增長的利潤數字存在出入。2016-2018年,該公司凈利潤從1.87億美元猛增至12億美元,自由現金流則反向而動,從負17億美元升至負29億美元,而今年的預期水平為負35億美元。為填補缺口,Netflix大量借貸。就像我在之前的報道中指出的那樣,由于在過去四年中消耗了如此之多的現金,Netflix 126億美元的長期債務規模已經超過了Uber、特斯拉等燒錢大戶的長期負債水平。

    Netflix從外部制作方那里購買影視劇,同時也開發自己的作品。它為購買和制作內容而消耗的現金已經遠遠超過1.5億用戶繳納的會員費,而且Netflix還要為員工工資、營銷和研發花錢。該公司獲得凈利潤是因為按照美國通用會計準則,傳媒公司無需在購買影視劇時確認費用,而可以將這些成本在所購影視劇預計將帶來收入的整個時間段內進行“攤銷”(修建汽車工廠的記賬方法也是如此——建廠的一、兩年內花費的現金將計為“費用”,并在隨后生產和銷售汽車的那些年中從凈利潤中逐步扣除)。

    由于Netflix的內容開支呈急劇上升態勢,費用攤銷速度落后于現金支出,這就解釋了它的現金流和凈利潤之間為何存在缺口。平均而言,Netflix攤銷影視劇采購成本的時間約為四年。娛樂資產的攤銷期限有很強的主觀性,而大多數分析師都認為Netflix的做法較為謹慎。調查會計師、投資基金Bastiat Capital的主管阿爾伯特·梅耶說:“Netflix用極為保守的方式攤銷自己的娛樂資產。如果它收購其他娛樂公司的目的是獲取內容而不是購買或制作節目,這些資產就可以計為‘商譽’,根本不必列為費用,這樣就可以人為地將利潤提升到很高的水平。但Netflix從未使用過這樣的辦法。”

    自由現金流的重要性

    Netflix的良好凈利潤或許有充分理由,該公司備受尊重的聯合創始人及首席執行官里德·黑斯廷斯表示,不斷增長的利潤意味著好事即將到來。但為回饋投資者,Netflix必須開始產生大量正的自由現金流,也就是制造和銷售產品等“經營活動產生的現金”,減去工廠、建筑物及其他資產保持良好狀態所需的資本支出。左右長期股價的是自由現金流。它是可以用來回饋股東的資金,途徑包括分紅、回購股份或者收購其他公司或品牌以推動自身增長。

    道理很簡單——如果未來現金流的“現值”相當于Netflix目前1450億美元的市值,那就表明投資者對這家流媒體視頻巨頭的估值處于恰當水平(現值的計算方法是按照投資者持有風險相當的資產所能實現的收益率對現金流折現)。如果Netflix的表現能夠超過市場目前已經下調的預期,該公司現有股東就可以獲得高額收益。

    Netflix管理層經常承認他們面臨這樣的挑戰。在2017年第二季度寫給股東的信中,他們表示:“最終,在收入規模顯著擴大后,原創內容和收入增速都會放緩,而且我們預計將創造出大量正自由現金流,就像我們的傳媒同業那樣。”

    我們不知道今后15年Netflix狀況如何,但我們可以合理地預測一下它要做些什么才能夠配得上自己依然龐大的估值。意外的是,掃除現金流障礙以實現這樣的目標很難,但Netflix仍然可以做到這一點,前提是滿足兩個目標。一是扣除營銷、研發、間接和利息支出后,讓今后幾十年乃至更久遠的平均收入增速達到中雙位數水平;與此同時,它還要控制內容方面的支出。這種情形面臨的威脅是就在Netflix用戶增長放緩之際,迪士尼、AT&T、亞馬遜和康卡斯特旗下的NBC紛紛推出或擴大流媒體業務。和Netflix以往的表現相比,對手的中單位數增長聽起來很容易。但目前可以清楚地看到,面對娛樂界大公司的競爭,今后瓜分不斷上升的全球流媒體收入的公司將明顯增多。另一個風險因素是Netflix被迫繼續為內容投入大量資金,目的是在新用戶爭奪戰中擊敗迪士尼或NBC,同時避免用戶流失。在這種情況下,Netflix的自由現金流增速就有可能不夠快,甚至是在收入快速上升之際。

    《財富》雜志的模型

    我建立了一個模型來預測今后16年的現金流入和流出情況,這是Netflix維持其1450億美元估值所需的條件,然后我再按照投資者對風險股的收益率要求計算出更高的現金流水平。這并不是對Netflix今后表現的預測。相反,該方法展現出的是實現重要目標需要經歷的過程,也就是快速提升自由現金流水平。如果在模型中Netflix的收入增速超過預期并且能夠將內容支出增長率控制在某一水平,其現金流就可以超過當前估值所需的規模,這種情況下Netflix有可能被低估。但如果銷售額低于標桿值,同時Netflix收緊新產品支出的幅度未能達到上述水平,其債務負擔就會增至令人擔心的地步,而且利息費用的不斷上升也會影響現金流,那么其股價走勢就可能相當慘淡。

    從模型中可以看出,要把市值維持在1450億美元,Netflix就需要通過獲取新用戶來實現現金的強勁增長,同時不能在內容上支出,也就是用收入來推動增長,并且它在新的娛樂業務方面的開支也要遠低于以往。

    上述分析基于兩個關鍵數字,我還給它們配上了縮寫。第一個是娛樂資產可用現金,縮寫為CAF。第二個是為娛樂資產分配的現金,縮寫為CAT。

    先說說CAF。它是Netflix的經營活動產生的現金,即收入減去營銷、研發、間接和利息成本,再扣除資本支出,但包括內容方面的開支。梅耶建議Netflix用這個數字“來確定他們在購買內容時能花多少錢”。他還說:“這樣做的話,Netflix就可以把內容收購控制在合理限度內。”

    目前的問題在于Netflix的支出遠遠超過CAF,也就是它的影視劇業務帶來的現金,而且它還在不斷借款,造成債務余額快速上升。2018年Netflix創造的CAF,也就是會員費減去費用及資本支出后的金額為102億美元(資本支出不多,為1.92億美元)。從2014到2018年,CAF每年都增長30%,聽起來很棒。

    但問題是CAT,也就是用于內容的支出超過了CAF。在此期間,CAT每年增長36%,2018年達到130億美元,從而使Netflix出現了28億美元的負自由現金流。

    Netflix該怎么辦

    目標很明確,就像Netflix自己所說的那樣,它需要讓這兩個數字顛倒過來,使CAF增速逐漸達到遠高于CAT的水平,從而創造出獲得大量正現金流的條件,以便證明自己值1450億美元,甚至更多。這也是該公司“全款”收購內容計劃的一部分——不是負債收購,而是借充足的現金流實現內生性發展。

    要達到這樣的標準,CAF和CAT的具體水平如下。就CAF來說,這是包含內容開支的經營性現金,假設2019年CAF上升20%,并在隨后15年內每年少增長0.8個百分點。那么到2034年,CAF增速為8%,然后會保持這樣的增長率。CAF主要受收入增長推動。幾乎可以肯定,Netflix的其他費用占銷售額的比重都會隨著銷售額的上升而下滑,從而有助于提高利潤率,但和收入趨勢相比,其貢獻較小。營銷、研發、間接和利息費用僅為該公司收入的四分之一左右。現金成本主要源于內容。

    這條曲線從20%起步然后不斷下滑,看起來很容易超越。2014-2018年,Netflix的收入年均增速為30%。但2019年上半年,其收入只增長了24%,而且美國用戶數量減少可能意味著今后的增長速度將放慢。要注意的一個要點是,Netflix預計2019年下半年用戶數量將強勁增長。該公司在二季報中表示:“我們預計第三季度的增長將回升到常規水平,而且已經在第三季度的最初幾周看到了這種跡象。目前我們的內部預期仍然是年度全球[用戶]凈增數量將超過上年。”

    盡管今年銷售額增幅遠高于20%,但上述模型顯示,Netflix的銷售額將從2018年的116億美元增至2028年年底的420億美元左右,年增速為15%。雖然這對Netflix的華爾街“粉絲”來說可能易如反掌,但人們要想到的是,流媒體這塊蛋糕還要喂飽好多饑餓的新面孔。另外,Netflix最近股價下跌已經降低了銷售額增幅標準。在令人失望的第二季度業績出爐前,Netflix每年的增長率都需要達到15.5%,才能夠將自身市值維持在7月初1640億美元的水平。

    再說說CAT。Netflix已經表示內容開支增速將放慢。在第二季度致股東的信中,除了重申2019年自由現金流將創下負35億美元的歷史記錄外,管理層還承諾“2020年的情況將好轉”,而且“從2020年起,我們將不斷縮小自由現金流缺口。”用我們較為保守CAF數字計算,要讓自由現金流缺口降至35億美元以下并在隨后繼續縮小,我們的模型表明內容支出減速的幅度要遠遠超過CAF增長率的逐步回落。

    要實現管理層的預期并讓自由現金流,也就是CAF和CAT之差達到1450億美元,內容收購費用(CAT)增速就得低于今年的20%——2020年降至15%,2021年再降到10%,隨后逐步下滑,到我們預測的末端,也就是2034年下降到8%。在這種情況下,2020年的自由現金流就會出現管理層預計的改善,盡管只是略有好轉,變為負34億美元。到2023年,該公司自由現金流就可實現收支持平;2028年,CAF就會比CAT多96億美元,隨后將持續呈上升態勢,到2034年達到212億美元(我們在模型中假設,到那時快速增長階段就會結束,而Netflix也只能實現8%的資本成本)。

    (按8%的資本成本)對年度現金流折現,就可能描繪出從大量負現金流到充足的自由現金流的路線,而Netflix也將通過這場1450億美元的考驗。最困難的部分是在用戶希望自己有無限種選擇的情況下控制娛樂方面的支出。

    快速下降的現金流和不斷膨脹的債務讓否定者將這家出色的顛覆型企業描述的不堪一擊。它并不是那樣。恕我和調查會計師阿爾伯特·梅耶直言,Netflix以CAT為導向,而且將以自己真正可以用來購買影視劇的財力為限。除了天花亂墜地吹噓《怪奇物語》、《王冠》以及《紙鈔屋》等超級大作外,Netflix還在業績發布信函中談到了會計和現金流,這讓人感到放心。

    因為從現在開始,要想保住自己流媒體超級巨星的地位,Netflix需要財務嚴格的自律。(財富中文網)

    譯者:Charlie

    審校:夏林

    Netflix has gone from offering a great product in a business it rules, to offering a great product in what will soon become a tough, crowded business that colossal invaders want to rule.

    That shift became apparent on July 17, when, for the first time in years, Netflix announced weak growth in subscribers during the second quarter. The backlash was brutal: Investors dumped the stock, tanking Netflix’s market cap by $24 billion or 15.2% over the next three days. However, evan after the steep selloff, they’re awarding Netflix a gargantuan valuation relative to its still puny earnings. (Its stock has bounced back but is still down 13% from its high in early July.) To merit its P/E multiple of 130, Netflix needs to keep performing action-hero heroics.

    The disappointing news––Netflix added just 2.7 million new members, half the number it had forecast, and saw a decrease in subscribers in the U.S.––has raised questions about whether Netflix can grow rapidly and profitably enough to be worth anything like $145 billion. The main issue is the discrepancy between Netflix’s negative-and-sinking cash flow and rising profit numbers. While its net earnings have jumped from $187 million to $1.2 billion from 2016 to 2018, its free cash flow has headed the other way, going from a negative $1.7 billion to minus $2.9 billion, with a $3.5 billion deficit forecast for this year. To bridge the gap, Netflix is borrowing heavily. As I pointed out in an earlier story, it's devoured so much cash over the past four years that its $12.6 billion in long-term debt exceeds that of that of cash burners such as Uber and Tesla.

    Netflix purchases movies and series from outside production companies, and also develops its own shows. The amounts it’s been spending right now, in cash, on buying and making content far exceeds the what it’s receiving in subscriptions from its 150 million members, less the cash spent on salaries, marketing, and R&D. Its net income is positive because under GAAP accounting rules, media companies are required to expense movies and shows not when they’re purchased, but to “amortize” those costs over the entire period the company expects them to generate revenues. (It’s the same story with building an auto plant: The cash gets spent over the year or two it takes to build the factory, and those costs are taken as an “expense” that’s deducted from net income over future years when the cars are rolling off the assembly line and selling in dealerships.)

    Because Netflix’s content spending is on a steep upward curve, its amortization expense lags what it’s laying out in cash, explaining the gulf between cash flow and net income. On average, Netflix writes off the cost of acquiring its shows over around four years. Amortization periods for entertainment assets are highly subjective, but most analysts agree that Netflix is exercising caution. “Netflix amortizes its entertainment assets in an extremely conservative manner,” says Albert Meyer, an investigative accountant, and chief of investment fund Bastiat Capital, which doesn’t own Netflix stock. “If it purchased other entertainment companies to get content instead of buying and making shows, those assets would count as ‘goodwill’ that it wouldn’t have to expense at all, making its earnings look artificially big. Netflix has never taken that approach.”

    The importance of free cash flow

    Netflix’s favorable net earnings may be fully justified, and its highly-respected co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings claims that those rising profits auger great things to come. But to reward investors, Netflix must begin to generate hugely positive free cash flow. That’s defined as “cash from operations” generated from making and selling products, minus capital expenditures needed to keep its plants, buildings and other assets in good condition. It’s free cash flow that drives stock prices over the long-term. It’s the money available to reward shareholders, in the form of dividends, buybacks, or purchases of other enterprises or brands that drive growth.

    The math is basic: If the “present value” of its future cash flows equals Netflix’s current market cap of $145 billion, then investors are correctly valuing the streaming colossus. (Present value is calculated by discounting the cash flows at a rate investors could receive on holdings of comparable risk.) And if Netflix can beat the market’s now downsized expectations, its current shareholders will reap big gains.

    Netflix management regularly acknowledges this challenge. In its shareholder letter for Q2, 2017, they wrote, “Eventually, at a much larger revenue base, original content and revenue growth will be slower, and we anticipate substantial positive FCF [free cash flow], like our media peers.”

    We don’t know how Netflix will fare over the next fifteen years or so, but we can make a good forecast of what it has to do to grow into its still gigantic valuation. Surprisingly, hitting the cash flow hurdles required to get there will be difficult, but doable if Netflix can achieve two goals: Grow its revenue less expenses for marketing, R&D, overhead, and interest at average mid-double digit levels over the next decade and beyond, and at the same time, rein in its spending on content. What threatens that scenario: the prospect that its pace of adding new members is slowing just when Disney, AT&T, Amazon and Comcast’s NBC are all launching or expanding their own streaming services. That mid-single digit bogey sounds easy compared to what Netflix has been achieving. But it’s now apparent that tomorrow’s burgeoning global revenues from streaming will be divided among a lot more players as the biggest names in show business cross swords with Netflix. Another danger: Netflix is forced to keep spending lavishly on content to beat a Disney or NBC in the contest for new subscribers, and to keep its members from defecting. In that scenario, it could fail to raise free cash flow fast enough even if revenues rise briskly.

    Fortune's model

    I’ve developed a model that projects in the inflow and outflow of cash, over the next sixteen years, that’s needed for Netflix to maintain its $145 billion valuation, and grow that number at the returns investors require from a risky stock. This is not a forecast of Netflix’s future performance. Instead, the methodology shows what trajectory is needed to generate what matters: fast-rising free cash flow. If Netflix raises revenues faster than assumed in the model and the holds increases in content spending to the specified levels, it will exceed the cash flows needed for its current valuation, and is probably undervalued. But if sales fall below the benchmarks, and Netflix doesn’t tighten spending on new productions beyond the numbers in the narrative, Netflix’s debt load could rise to worrisome levels, hammering cash flows with mounting interest expense, and its stock could fare poorly.

    What the model shows is that to be worth $145 billion, Netflix needs a blend of strong growth in cash from gaining new subscribers before it spends a dollar on content––growth driven by revenues––and much smaller increases in spending on fresh entertainment than in the past.

    I’ve based the analysis on two key numbers, and I’ve given them both acronyms. The first is Cash Available For Entertainment Assets, or CAF. The second is Cash Allocated To Entertainment Assets, or CAT.

    Let’s start with CAF. It’s the cash that Netflix generates from its operations, consisting of revenues less costs of marketing, R&D, overhead, and interest, after capex, and before expenditures on content. Meyer advises Netflix to use this number “to determine how much they can spend on content acquisitions.” Adds Meyer, “If they do that, they will keep content acquisition within reasonable limits.”

    Today, the rub is that Netflix is spending a lot more than the CAF that it garners from operations on movies and series, and is borrowing the fast-expanding balance. In 2018, Netflix generated $10.2 billon in CAF from subscriber fees less expenses, after subtracting capex (a modest $192 million). From 2014 through 2018, CAF has grown by 30% annually. Sounds great.

    The rub is that CAT, spending on content, outraced CAF, soaring 36% a year over the same period, hitting $13 billion in 2018. That left Netflix with negative free cash flow of $2.8 billion.

    What Netflix needs to do

    The objective is obvious, as Netflix acknowledges: It needs to flip the two numbers, so that CAF gradually grows a lot larger then CAT, the dynamic needed to generate the big positive cash flow Netflix needs to prove it’s worth $145 billion, and rising. That’s also part of its plan to fully pay for content acquisitions not with more debt, but organically, with plentiful cash flow.

    Here are CAF and CAT numbers that would meet that standard. For CAF, cash from operations before spending on content, let's assume that the number rises 20% in 2019, then increases at rates that decrease by .8% a year over the following 15 years, so that in 2034, CAFE increases 8%, and simply keeps rising at that rate thereafter. CAF is mainly driven by revenue growth. It’s almost certain that Netflix’s other expenses will fall as a share of sales as it expands, helping margins, but the contribution will be small in comparison with the trend in revenues. Marketing, R&D, overhead and interest equal only around one-quarter of Netflix’s revenues. The overwhelming cash cost is for content.

    That 20%-and-falling curve looks easy to beat. From 2014 to 2018, Netflix’s revenues jumped 30% a year on average. But in the first half of 2019, they expanded just 24%, and the fall U.S. subscribers could signal slower times ahead. It’s important to note that Netflix predicts that subscriber growth will be strong in the second half of 2019. As the company stated in the Q2 report, “We expect to return to my typical growth in Q3, and are seeing that in these early weeks of Q3. Our internal forecast still currently calls for annual global net adds [additions to subscribers] to be up year over year.”

    Even if sales grow well above 20% this year, the model calls for Netflix to expand from $11.6 billion in 2018 to around $42 billion by the end of 2028, at a rate of 15% annually. While that might seem a snap to Netflix fans on Wall Street, keep in mind that the streaming pie will be feeding a clutch of hungry new players. By the way, the recent drop in Netflix’s share price has lowered the bar for sales growth. Prior to the disappointing Q2 announcement, Netflix would have had to grow at 15.5% a year to grow into its then-$164 billion market cap in early July.

    As for CAT, Netflix has provided guidance suggesting a slowdown in its rate of content spending. In its Q2 letter, after re-stating that free cash flow would total a record, negative $3.5 billion for 2019, management pledged “improvement in 2020,” adding that “from there, we’ll continue to reduce our free cash flow deficit.” Using our relatively conservative CAF numbers, to send the FCF shortfall below $3.5 billion and shrinking from there, our model calls for the pace of content spending to fall a lot more rapidly than the gradual decline in CAF growth.

    To incorporate management’s forecast, and get the stream of free cash flow––the difference between CAF and CAT––to equal $145 billion, content acquisition (CAT) would downshift from a 20% increase this year, to 15% in 2020, then in 10% in 2021, and gradually declining from there to 8% at the end of our horizon, in 2034. In that scenario, free cash flow would improve in 2020 as management predicted, though just a touch, to -$3.4 billion. By 2023, Netflix would be breaking even on FCF, and in 2028, CAF would exceed CAT by $9.6 billion, remaining on the righteous path and hitting $21.2 billion in 2034. (From that point on, our model assumes that the big growth days are over, and that Netflix simply earns its costs of capital of 8%.)

    Discount the yearly data points (at that 8% cost of capital) charting the journey from deep deficits to plentiful free cash, and Netflix meets the $145 billion test. The hardest part will be restraining the entertainment spend in a world where viewers have an appetite for limitless options.

    Netflix’s fast-falling cash flow and burgeoning debt has naysayers branding the great disruptor as a house of cards. It isn’t. May I humbly suggest, along with investigative accountant Albert Meyer, that Netflix adopt CAT as its guide, and to set limits on what it can really afford to pay for new shows. It’s reassuring that Netflix talks about accounting and cash flows in its earnings letters amid all the hoopla over mega-hits like Stranger Things, The Crown and La Casa de Papel (Money Heist).

    Because from now on, Netflix will need financial discipline as much as blockbusters to keep reigning as streaming’s mega-star.

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