Netflix Inc. has quintupled its value in my Strategy Lab model portfolio, so far. I don't expect another run that strong going forward, but I think the stock will least double by the end of the decade.
Let's take a quick look back before we go forward. In the summer of 2011, Netflix announced plans to separate its streaming video business from the DVD-by-mail business. The latter was to be rebranded as Qwikster. This marked the beginning of an 80-per-cent slide in Netflix's peak share price of about $300 (U.S.). Chief executive Reed Hastings listened to customer feedback and scrapped the Qwikster idea. This move, along with excellent business performance, drove the stock back above $300 just a few months ago.
As a long-term investor I think it's important to point out that even if you'd been "unlucky" enough to buy Netflix shares at their absolute peak in 2011, your investment would be still be much higher today. Volatility is scary, but it is not the enemy of a long-term investor.
So what's different about Netflix today versus Netflix from mid-2011? The strategy is more clear and the results have been stellar, as illustrated by fourth-quarter results posted last week.
In the last two years, Netflix has pushed heavily into original content while expanding its geographical coverage. These two factors, which I'll call "content and countries", are the keys to continued growth for years into the future. This is why I'm still very much bullish on the stock, despite what many think is a sky-high price tag. (Full disclosure: I also own Netflix personally, in addition to my Strategy Lab model portfolio.)
Netflix as a service is very affordable. You get unlimited access to a continuously improving content library for $7.95 per month. The business now has over 44 million streaming customers. Netflix posted year over year subscriber growth of 40 per cent in the most recent quarter. Analysts who felt the U.S. customer base was maturing just watched the streaming giant post 23 per cent domestic subscriber growth. Outside of the United States, results are even stronger. International subscriber growth was 66 per cent year-over-year, and I think there is much more room to grow in the coming decade.
The bear argument hasn't really changed. Bears think Netflix will suffer from rising content costs and increased competition. These folks fail to realize that Netflix is investing heavily, by choice, to win the long-term war, not next quarter's profit battle. One needs only to look at the growth of Amazon.com to understand this. Amazon invests to dominate retail ecommerce. Netflix invests to dominate in Internet video.
The key difference is that Netflix benefits from a virtuous cycle of growth. Netflix has already proven its ability to capture subscribers through great original content such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. Money buys content, and content gets them subscribers. Subscribers bring them more money, and the cycle continues as a positive feedback loop. Expansion across Europe and Asia seems like a no-brainer, and the subscriber growth lets Netflix spread its content-production cost across a global audience.
Within two years I expect Netflix will be producing high-quality blockbuster movies in addition to TV series. This strategy was best worded by Netflix's chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, who in an interview with GQ magazine said, "The goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us."
As a shareholder, I'm thrilled to see Netflix investing in its business for the long term rather than trying to squeeze as much profit out of the business as it can today.
The world is moving from traditional TV delivery to customer-controlled Internet delivery. I don't think the bears appreciate how important it is that Netflix leads the market down this long-term path. I think Netflix can probably double its penetration in the U.S. market while doing significantly better internationally.
The winners in this business will be those who can build a global brand and invest billions of dollars in content that they can stream to the world. Netflix won't be alone, and this market doesn't need to end in a Netflix monopoly for the shares to be a successful investment.
Too many investors are looking backwards as if 44 million subscribers is some sort of incredible end result. I think we're still in the first few innings. It wouldn't surprise me for Netflix to close in on 200 million subscribers by the end of this decade. If they reach a 20-per-cent net margin, we're talking about almost $4-billion in annual earnings. This scenario makes the company's current $23-billion market capitalization seem cheap.