Some times in the financial markets, the numbers aren’t as important as the narrative.
I think that was the case with Alphabet (GOOG), Tuesday, April 24. Monday after the market close Alphabet reported first quarter earnings of $9.93. That was a healthy 64 cents a share above the Wall Street consensus estimate for the quarter. Revenue climbed 25.9% two $31.15 billion. That was $870 million above Wall Street projections. Paid clicks on Google properties rose 59% year over year.
But Tuesday the stock sank by 4.45%, dropping $47.47 a share to $1019.98
Why the drop on such good earnings numbers?
Because as the plunge (down 6.2%) in Caterpillar (CAT), Tuesday, also on a big earnings beat, shows investors and traders have focused their current worries on the possibility that profit margins have peaked and will fall from here throughout 2018. That was exactly what Caterpillar executives said in their post-earnings-release conference call. The company said that this past quarter was the top as far as profit margins go. Nobody wanted to hear that margins–and hence earnings–were likely to shrink from here. Hence the plunge in Caterpillar shares and the drop in the stock market as a whole.
Now Alphabet didn’t come out and say, “Hey, we’re feeling margin pressure,” but it was clear from the quarter’s numbers.
The company reports something called TAC (traffic acquisition costs) which is what Alphabet pays to partner websites that run Google ads. The total was $3.8 billion in the quarter to 21% of advertising revenue.
Google’s total traffic-acquisition costs — the fees it pays to partner websites that run Google ads or services — were $3.8 billion, or 24% of total advertising revenue. That was an increase from 22% of ad revenue in the first quarter of 2017. That increase is enough to raise an eyebrow or two–very mildly, I admit.
But if you broke down TAC further, you found a problem that was enough to raise eyebrows as far as analyst eyebrows can be raised. Part of TAC goes to one-off deals with distribution partners. These TAC are payments that Alphabet makes to say, a cell phone maker or operator to make sure that Google is the default search engine on a device. The cost of these deals jumped 33% from the first quarter of 2017. At the beginning of the conference call Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat explained that areas such as mobile advertising have higher acquisition costs–and that these areas are among Google’s strongest sources of growth.
That got analyst attention because what Porat was implying is that if mobile is the fastest area of revenue growth for Google and that if TAC is rising aggressively in mobile, then the costs of acquiring traffic for Google were in danger of cutting deeply into profits at Alphabet. On the call, you could here a rumbling anxiety among Wall Street analysts who wanted more specifics about the costs of Google’s search deals–but who weren’t getting the detail that they wanted.
This worry fit right in with Tuesday’s market narrative. If Alphabet was seeing higher costs for acquiring traffic–and especially much higher costs for search deals with distribution partners–then Alphabet is looking at tremendous pressure on its profit margins. At least that’s the worry. And let’s be clear, it’s a prospective worry since earnings at Alphabet are still growing very nicely thank you–which wouldn’t be the case if higher costs were significantly pressuring profit margins NOW.
But the trend is worrying and future margins might be under pressure. And with the stock trading at roughly 60 times trailing 12-month earnings–and up 20.97% in the last 12 months, traders and investors said, on Tuesday, that selling was the safest course. (Alphabet’s gain was once much greater: as of January 26, 2018, the 12-month gain in the shares was 39.45%.)
Alphabet is a member of my long-term 50 Stocks portfolio.