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市盈率高达130倍,Netflix值这么多吗?

Shawn Tully 2019年08月12日

要想保住自己流媒体超级巨星的地位,Netflix需要财务严格的自律。

Netflix曾经在自己主导的领域里向用户提供优秀作品,然而它所在的行业很快就会变得艰难而拥挤,还会有大型“入侵者”对它的地位发起挑战。

从7月17日情况就能够轻易看到这一变化——多年来,Netflix首次披露用户增长缓慢,而且就在今年第二季度。巨大的冲击随之而来,投资者纷纷抛出Netflix股票,造成其市值在随后三天内蒸发了240亿美元,或者15.2%。不过,尽管出现暴跌,但Netflix的估值相对于依然低迷的业绩而言仍然十分庞大(其股价已经反弹,但仍然比7月初的高点低13%)。为了给自己的130倍市盈率正名,Netflix需要继续展现出动作片主角般的英雄气概。

令人失望的消息是Netflix的用户仅增长了270万人,只有该公司预期的一半,而且美国用户数量下滑,这让人怀疑Netflix能否快速增长并赚取足够利润,以体现其1450亿美元的价值。主要问题在于Netflix仍然在萎缩的负现金流和它持续增长的利润数字存在出入。2016-2018年,该公司净利润从1.87亿美元猛增至12亿美元,自由现金流则反向而动,从负17亿美元升至负29亿美元,而今年的预期水平为负35亿美元。为填补缺口,Netflix大量借贷。就像我在之前的报道中指出的那样,由于在过去四年中消耗了如此之多的现金,Netflix 126亿美元的长期债务规模已经超过了Uber、特斯拉等烧钱大户的长期负债水平。

Netflix从外部制作方那里购买影视剧,同时也开发自己的作品。它为购买和制作内容而消耗的现金已经远远超过1.5亿用户缴纳的会员费,而且Netflix还要为员工工资、营销和研发花钱。该公司获得净利润是因为按照美国通用会计准则,传媒公司无需在购买影视剧时确认费用,而可以将这些成本在所购影视剧预计将带来收入的整个时间段内进行“摊销”(修建汽车工厂的记账方法也是如此——建厂的一、两年内花费的现金将计为“费用”,并在随后生产和销售汽车的那些年中从净利润中逐步扣除)。

由于Netflix的内容开支呈急剧上升态势,费用摊销速度落后于现金支出,这就解释了它的现金流和净利润之间为何存在缺口。平均而言,Netflix摊销影视剧采购成本的时间约为四年。娱乐资产的摊销期限有很强的主观性,而大多数分析师都认为Netflix的做法较为谨慎。调查会计师、投资基金Bastiat Capital的主管阿尔伯特·梅耶说:“Netflix用极为保守的方式摊销自己的娱乐资产。如果它收购其他娱乐公司的目的是获取内容而不是购买或制作节目,这些资产就可以计为‘商誉’,根本不必列为费用,这样就可以人为地将利润提升到很高的水平。但Netflix从未使用过这样的办法。”

自由现金流的重要性

Netflix的良好净利润或许有充分理由,该公司备受尊重的联合创始人及首席执行官里德·黑斯廷斯表示,不断增长的利润意味着好事即将到来。但为回馈投资者,Netflix必须开始产生大量正的自由现金流,也就是制造和销售产品等“经营活动产生的现金”,减去工厂、建筑物及其他资产保持良好状态所需的资本支出。左右长期股价的是自由现金流。它是可以用来回馈股东的资金,途径包括分红、回购股份或者收购其他公司或品牌以推动自身增长。

道理很简单——如果未来现金流的“现值”相当于Netflix目前1450亿美元的市值,那就表明投资者对这家流媒体视频巨头的估值处于恰当水平(现值的计算方法是按照投资者持有风险相当的资产所能实现的收益率对现金流折现)。如果Netflix的表现能够超过市场目前已经下调的预期,该公司现有股东就可以获得高额收益。

Netflix管理层经常承认他们面临这样的挑战。在2017年第二季度写给股东的信中,他们表示:“最终,在收入规模显著扩大后,原创内容和收入增速都会放缓,而且我们预计将创造出大量正自由现金流,就像我们的传媒同业那样。”

我们不知道今后15年Netflix状况如何,但我们可以合理地预测一下它要做些什么才能够配得上自己依然庞大的估值。意外的是,扫除现金流障碍以实现这样的目标很难,但Netflix仍然可以做到这一点,前提是满足两个目标。一是扣除营销、研发、间接和利息支出后,让今后几十年乃至更久远的平均收入增速达到中双位数水平;与此同时,它还要控制内容方面的支出。这种情形面临的威胁是就在Netflix用户增长放缓之际,迪士尼、AT&T、亚马逊和康卡斯特旗下的NBC纷纷推出或扩大流媒体业务。和Netflix以往的表现相比,对手的中单位数增长听起来很容易。但目前可以清楚地看到,面对娱乐界大公司的竞争,今后瓜分不断上升的全球流媒体收入的公司将明显增多。另一个风险因素是Netflix被迫继续为内容投入大量资金,目的是在新用户争夺战中击败迪士尼或NBC,同时避免用户流失。在这种情况下,Netflix的自由现金流增速就有可能不够快,甚至是在收入快速上升之际。

《财富》杂志的模型

我建立了一个模型来预测今后16年的现金流入和流出情况,这是Netflix维持其1450亿美元估值所需的条件,然后我再按照投资者对风险股的收益率要求计算出更高的现金流水平。这并不是对Netflix今后表现的预测。相反,该方法展现出的是实现重要目标需要经历的过程,也就是快速提升自由现金流水平。如果在模型中Netflix的收入增速超过预期并且能够将内容支出增长率控制在某一水平,其现金流就可以超过当前估值所需的规模,这种情况下Netflix有可能被低估。但如果销售额低于标杆值,同时Netflix收紧新产品支出的幅度未能达到上述水平,其债务负担就会增至令人担心的地步,而且利息费用的不断上升也会影响现金流,那么其股价走势就可能相当惨淡。

从模型中可以看出,要把市值维持在1450亿美元,Netflix就需要通过获取新用户来实现现金的强劲增长,同时不能在内容上支出,也就是用收入来推动增长,并且它在新的娱乐业务方面的开支也要远低于以往。

上述分析基于两个关键数字,我还给它们配上了缩写。第一个是娱乐资产可用现金,缩写为CAF。第二个是为娱乐资产分配的现金,缩写为CAT。

先说说CAF。它是Netflix的经营活动产生的现金,即收入减去营销、研发、间接和利息成本,再扣除资本支出,但包括内容方面的开支。梅耶建议Netflix用这个数字“来确定他们在购买内容时能花多少钱”。他还说:“这样做的话,Netflix就可以把内容收购控制在合理限度内。”

目前的问题在于Netflix的支出远远超过CAF,也就是它的影视剧业务带来的现金,而且它还在不断借款,造成债务余额快速上升。2018年Netflix创造的CAF,也就是会员费减去费用及资本支出后的金额为102亿美元(资本支出不多,为1.92亿美元)。从2014到2018年,CAF每年都增长30%,听起来很棒。

但问题是CAT,也就是用于内容的支出超过了CAF。在此期间,CAT每年增长36%,2018年达到130亿美元,从而使Netflix出现了28亿美元的负自由现金流。

Netflix该怎么办

目标很明确,就像Netflix自己所说的那样,它需要让这两个数字颠倒过来,使CAF增速逐渐达到远高于CAT的水平,从而创造出获得大量正现金流的条件,以便证明自己值1450亿美元,甚至更多。这也是该公司“全款”收购内容计划的一部分——不是负债收购,而是借充足的现金流实现内生性发展。

要达到这样的标准,CAF和CAT的具体水平如下。就CAF来说,这是包含内容开支的经营性现金,假设2019年CAF上升20%,并在随后15年内每年少增长0.8个百分点。那么到2034年,CAF增速为8%,然后会保持这样的增长率。CAF主要受收入增长推动。几乎可以肯定,Netflix的其他费用占销售额的比重都会随着销售额的上升而下滑,从而有助于提高利润率,但和收入趋势相比,其贡献较小。营销、研发、间接和利息费用仅为该公司收入的四分之一左右。现金成本主要源于内容。

这条曲线从20%起步然后不断下滑,看起来很容易超越。2014-2018年,Netflix的收入年均增速为30%。但2019年上半年,其收入只增长了24%,而且美国用户数量减少可能意味着今后的增长速度将放慢。要注意的一个要点是,Netflix预计2019年下半年用户数量将强劲增长。该公司在二季报中表示:“我们预计第三季度的增长将回升到常规水平,而且已经在第三季度的最初几周看到了这种迹象。目前我们的内部预期仍然是年度全球[用户]净增数量将超过上年。”

尽管今年销售额增幅远高于20%,但上述模型显示,Netflix的销售额将从2018年的116亿美元增至2028年年底的420亿美元左右,年增速为15%。虽然这对Netflix的华尔街“粉丝”来说可能易如反掌,但人们要想到的是,流媒体这块蛋糕还要喂饱好多饥饿的新面孔。另外,Netflix最近股价下跌已经降低了销售额增幅标准。在令人失望的第二季度业绩出炉前,Netflix每年的增长率都需要达到15.5%,才能够将自身市值维持在7月初1640亿美元的水平。

再说说CAT。Netflix已经表示内容开支增速将放慢。在第二季度致股东的信中,除了重申2019年自由现金流将创下负35亿美元的历史记录外,管理层还承诺“2020年的情况将好转”,而且“从2020年起,我们将不断缩小自由现金流缺口。”用我们较为保守CAF数字计算,要让自由现金流缺口降至35亿美元以下并在随后继续缩小,我们的模型表明内容支出减速的幅度要远远超过CAF增长率的逐步回落。

要实现管理层的预期并让自由现金流,也就是CAF和CAT之差达到1450亿美元,内容收购费用(CAT)增速就得低于今年的20%——2020年降至15%,2021年再降到10%,随后逐步下滑,到我们预测的末端,也就是2034年下降到8%。在这种情况下,2020年的自由现金流就会出现管理层预计的改善,尽管只是略有好转,变为负34亿美元。到2023年,该公司自由现金流就可实现收支持平;2028年,CAF就会比CAT多96亿美元,随后将持续呈上升态势,到2034年达到212亿美元(我们在模型中假设,到那时快速增长阶段就会结束,而Netflix也只能实现8%的资本成本)。

(按8%的资本成本)对年度现金流折现,就可能描绘出从大量负现金流到充足的自由现金流的路线,而Netflix也将通过这场1450亿美元的考验。最困难的部分是在用户希望自己有无限种选择的情况下控制娱乐方面的支出。

快速下降的现金流和不断膨胀的债务让否定者将这家出色的颠覆型企业描述的不堪一击。它并不是那样。恕我和调查会计师阿尔伯特·梅耶直言,Netflix以CAT为导向,而且将以自己真正可以用来购买影视剧的财力为限。除了天花乱坠地吹嘘《怪奇物语》、《王冠》以及《纸钞屋》等超级大作外,Netflix还在业绩发布信函中谈到了会计和现金流,这让人感到放心。

因为从现在开始,要想保住自己流媒体超级巨星的地位,Netflix需要财务严格的自律。(财富中文网)

译者:Charlie

审校: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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