It is not Netflix's fault that investors priced its shares for perfection. But the Internet video company is to blame for managing its own balance sheet for the same flawless performance.
The former high-flier announced Monday night it had sold $200 million in new shares at $70 each and another $200 million in bonds convertible to stock at $85.80. Just months ago, the stock traded above $300. It is now at $72.
Netflix could easily have avoided this. The company has spent over $1 billion on share repurchases since 2007, leaving it with just $366 million in cash and $200 million in debt at the end of the third quarter. During that time, executives including chief executive Reed Hastings have been selling shares.
In buying back shares, Netflix failed to build a cash cushion against any slowdown in its heady growth rate. With expectations for healthy subscriber additions stretching into the future, the company locked into big contracts for streaming content. Since the start of 2011, the company has more than tripled such commitments to a whopping $3.5 billion, of which $2.9 billion is due in the next three years.
But everything changed this summer after the company raised prices and began bleeding subscribers. The company has not indicated subscriber losses have stopped and said it expects to lose money next year. Netflix has also said it expects free cash flow to lag net income over the next several quarters. In the year through September, the company's free cash flow was a modest $204 million, while buybacks totaled $200 million.
Unfortunately, dilutive stock and convertible issues have become Netflix's best option for raising cash to cover the potential outflows. The company sold $200 million in eight-year bonds in 2009, but those have a yield of about 7.3%, according to MarketAxess. So issuing more debt would mean large coupon payments. The newly-issued convertible doesn't include regular interest payments and won't mature until 2018.
What Netflix desperately needs is for streaming subscriber growth to resume. That should boost margins and cash flow, even though a portion of the content costs rise with viewership, because much of it was purchased for a fixed price. And if subscriptions improve, content owners could yet ask for higher fees in future deals, making a cash cushion crucial.
The lesson for growth companies is that buybacks can be risky—not just in large amounts, but at high prices. Netflix paid an average price of $45 a share for stock repurchased since 2007, below the current level of $72. But many of the recent purchases were at multiples of that price. If Netflix had refrained from aggressive buybacks until the business model was relatively steady, inevitable bumps in the road would have been much easier to ride out.
Write to John Jannarone at email@example.com