Will Google finally start sharing its cash with stockholders and Amazon finally see improvements in its margins? Or will Pandora Media finally strike a good deal with music labels? And how about internet acquisitions? Will we see any next year?
RBC Capital analysts Mark Mahaney and Rohit Kulkarni and their associates put together a list of the top ten internet surprises they’re predicting for 2015. They describe a surprise as being “an event which the average Internet investor thinks is highly improbable, but we believe has a reasonable chance (30%+) of occurring.” They borrowed that formula from Byron Wien.
Let’s start with potential surprises for specific companies, namely Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc., before we turn to their more general surprises for the internet sector (We’ve kept their numbering of the surprises intact).
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Surprise #1: Google to share its cash
The RBC Capital team starts off with something that really seems like a long shot. Google has yet to return any cash to its shareholders, although investors have pressured Apple into returning cash even though it has already been doing so. The analysts think it’s possible Google will actually follow Apple this year and return some cash.
They estimate that by the end of 2015, Google will have more than $80 billion in cash and marketable securities. The RBC team points out that Apple started returning cash when it hit about $100 billion by initiating a dividend. They think Google management pays attention to what Apple does, so they might start returning cash to shareholders.
If this happens, they say it would of course be a positive move, and they may re-rate Google if their prediction comes true.
Surprise #2: Facebook’s expense base balloons
The RBC analysts note that Facebook management said on their third quarter earnings call that they expect to increase the social network’s expenses by 50% to 70% in 2015. They think the result will be at the top of that range and say it appears as if no one expects the company to actually do it.
Facebook management also guided for aggressive growth in operating expenditures, although they pulled back a bit in the following quarters. As a result, Wall Street may think Facebook is just being conservative, but the RBC team thinks the social network could make good on its aggressive spending, in light of this year’s string of acquisitions, which include WhatsApp and Oculus Rift.
Surprise #3: Amazon to rally
The analysts also say it would be a great surprise if Amazon will finally start to see its margins recover and revenue growth to speed up again in 2015. They point out that sentiment on the online retailer remains very negative, as demonstrated by its “current close-to-trough PS multiple” and the more than 20% correction this year.
Wall Street has tired of Amazon’s continued spending and promises of future growth. The e-commerce giant has not stabilized its revenue growth or operating margins because it has been continually investing over the last four years.
However, the RBC team thinks faster shipping times, continued expansion into other verticals, easing comparisons and the full-year impact from the increase in pricing for Amazon’s Prime service could finally bring investors the results they’ve been looking for. Of course if this really happens, Amazon shares could rally tremendously in 2015.
Surprise #5: Pandora to finally reach deals with music labels
Pandora Media has been in negotiations with music labels for quite some time, and they think there will finally be a resolution by the end of 2015. The process isn’t scheduled to be finished until next December, and Wall Street has been concerned about how high a rate Pandora will have to pay.
As a result, any “seemingly ‘reasonable'” rate would be viewed as a positive catalyst for the radio streaming provider. On a side note, it would also be a surprise if Taylor Swift returns to Spotify because she’ll see that pulling her music from it doesn’t positively impact her music sales because consumers don’t buy music anymore.
Surprise #9: Twitter reaccelerates user growth
If Twitter is really able to speed up its user growth again, this would certainly be a HUGE surprise for Wall Street. Other surprises the RBC team sees for Twitter are that Dick Costolo would remain CEO and that the micro-blogging platform would be able to gain “material traction with advertisers.”
They think Wall Street sees low probabilities that all of these events will happen, but they note that all three vents are linked. They think these things could happen based on the improvements in Twitter’s user interface, as such improvements have driven improvements in usage at other companies. Additionally, they point out that ad dollars “really do follow eyeballs,” as demonstrated by Google. As a result, they think Wall Street is being too negative on Twitter.
Surprise #10: Netflix’s U.S. subscriber numbers balloon thanks to Marco Polo
The RBC team notes that it seems pretty unlikely that Netflix’s original series Marco Polo will be a smash hit because of the mixed reviews on the show thus far. However, the analysts point out that Netflix already has a pretty big catalog of original content launches set for 2015, which could combine to help the video streaming service add more than 5 million U.S. net subscribers this year.
Of course they would be a big positive surprise for the company’s stock.
Surprises #4, 6, 7 and 8: Other internet surprises
The other surprises Mahaney and company predict are focused more on types of companies rather than specific names. Perhaps the biggest one (#6) is that Wall Street would be surprised if any major internet acquisitions to occur in 2015. In other words, they don’t expect any of the speculated targets will be acquired, including Yelp, HomeAway, Pandora, Shutterfly and AOL.
A related surprise is number seven on their list, which is that the merger of Trulia and Zillow won’t go through. On one hand, the RBC team said it will probably go through, but they see “at least some reasonable chance that it doesn’t.”
For another (#4), they expect online travel agencies to finally demonstrate leverage in their online advertising expenses. For the last four years, these companies have seen “consistent deleverage” because of greater competition in paid searchers and geographic expansion. The RBC sees benefits for Expedia and Priceline if this happens.
And finally (#8), they think internet companies based in the U.S. will finally begin to “gain real traction” in China. So far, they say the only U.S. internet company that has found success in China is Yahoo because of its investment in Alibaba.