Bombshell: Is the Priceline growth machine decelerating?
For years, Priceline has been the darling of the travel industry within the financial investment community, reaching an eye-watering market capitalisation of close to $30 billion.
But one set of marginally wobbly financial results - when CEO Jeff Boyd explained away lower-than-expected estimates being due to the effects of the ongoing financial woes inflicting many European countries – was enough to send the company’s share price tumbling.
Less than 24 hours after the results were announced, stock had slumped by around 15% – a figure probably large enough to send (ex?) marketing frontman William Shatner tumbling off a cliff.
Such is the high esteem in which investors (and, let’s face it, the rest of the industry) hold Priceline that the first sign of a wrinkle in its financial performance following its second quarter earnings this week (and those of fellow OTA Orbitz) led other travel stocks to follow a downward trend on the news.
What freaked out a string of analysts was Priceline’s projections for the third quarter of 2012, a softness in its estimated revenues – against predictions – primarily in its European business (namely Booking.com) which side-footed many of them and triggered the subsequent nervousness in the markets.
Priceline has talked about this “softness” in previous financials result, but primarily in the context of southern Europe, where the sharp end of a faltering European economy is most felt.
But this time round the normally unflappable Priceline predicted that the worries might be extending to elsewhere around the continent.
“In our view, PCLN’s European tone (and in particular their guidance) was more guarded than most other travel and leisure companies’ this quarter,” analyst group Nomura wrote in a note issued after the results.
Macquarie Equities Research added:
“What was once a Southern Europe macro problem for PCLN [Priceline] appears to be spreading.”
While remaining positive about some aspects of Priceline’s performance and strategy, Numura wondered if there is a wider issue in play, throwing in something which many have often wondered but dared not consider given the continual growth at Priceline in recent years.
Priceline was more guarded than other travel companies about its forecasts, Nomura said, adding that this aspect, coupled with the “counter-cyclical nature of the OTAs, makes us question how much of this is macro-related vs. the laws of large numbers and natural deceleration”.
And there you have it – is Priceline’s seemingly unstoppable rise to the top finally stalling?
Macquarie was more upbeat:
“How long Europe/FX [foreign exchange] volatility will remain an overhang is hard to say, but we expect PCLN to continue to outperform should softness persist (similar to the ’08/’09 financial crisis).”
So where does Priceline go from here?
Although fellow analyst group Citi also expressed surprise at the results and forecast (“we didn’t anticipate THIS”), it pointed to areas where the company may turn its attention to next, as it tries to weather the storm.
“Stock is likely dead $ for the near term, but an obvious secular growth, global presence, consistent execution, market share gaining, strong balance sheet, attractive valuation story won’t stay attractive for too long.”
But it added: “New drivers to the PCLN story? Asia & Latam [Latin America] expansion, rental cars roll-out, continued US hotel market share gains.”
So a return to its roots in the US, where the mothership Priceline brand still holds a solid position alongside rival OTA Expedia, plus expansion of its 2010 acquisition Travel Jigsaw.
But perhaps more importantly, time to leave those struggling Europeans to themselves for a bit, and a focus on major new emerging markets.
Given the success Priceline has had in new territories in Asia-Pacific, it would potentially be a fool that discounts the company just yet. Maybe just a reigning in of those expectations.
Kevin May is editor and a co-founder of Tnooz. He was previously editor of UK-based magazine Travolution for nearly four years and web editor of Media Week UK from 2003 to 2005.
He has also worked in regional newspapers (Essex Enquirer) and started his career in journalism at the Police Gazette at New Scotland Yard in London. He has a degree in criminology and a postgraduate diploma in magazine journalism.