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The Ratings Game: Disney stock tumbles to worst day since 2001 after ‘massive earnings downgrade’

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Walt Disney Co. has a profit problem, and that’s helped send shares of the media giant to their worst daily performance in more than two decades.

Though Disney
DIS,
-13.16%

notched record sales during its latest fiscal year, executives stunned investors with their forecast for segment operating income, which the company uses “as a measure of the performance of operating businesses separate from non-operating factors,” according to its press release.

Executives anticipate a high-single-digit rate of growth on the metric in the new fiscal year, which was far lower than analysts were expecting. The outlook compared to a consensus view for 25% growth, according to MoffettNathanson analyst Michael Nathanson. He personally was expecting 34% growth.

“Rarely have we ever been so incorrect in our forecasting of Disney profits,” he wrote in a note to clients. “Given the company’s confidence that Parks trends appear resilient, it appears that the culprit for the massive earnings downgrade is much higher than expected [direct-to-consumer] losses and significant declines at Linear networks.”

Cord-cutting and other pains that hit the traditional media business create “greater pressure to drive profitability at Disney’s domestic parks, which are now the key engine of growth,” he continued. “In addition, the company has to prove that their pivot to DTC will be worth the investment price that is currently being paid.”

That creates a tough position for the stock, in his view.

“Putting it all together, Disney needs the Parks business to not be wounded by a global macro slowdown, Linear Networks profits to stabilize and DTC profits to quickly emerge for investors to re-rate the stock higher,” Nathanson wrote. “At this point in time, the risks appear skewed against them.”

He reiterated a market-perform rating on the stock and cut his price target to $100 from $130.

Shares of Disney closed down 13.2% in Wednesday trading to log their worst single-day percentage decline since Sept. 17, 2001, when they fell 18.4%.

Cowen & Co.’s Doug Creutz wrote that while Disney executives expect that losses for the Disney+ streaming service will improve, the company’s broader guidance and commentary “seems to imply substantial margin compression” for the linear networks and content business.

“This goes back to our long-running view that treating linear and DTC as separate business segments makes little sense; they are just different distribution channels for the same content in a largely zero-sum game with greatly increased competitive intensity, aside from potential expansion into international markets,” he wrote, as he kept a market-perform rating on the shares and reduced his target price to $94 from $124.

Morgan Stanley’s Benjamin Swinburne offered that “the importance to scaling streaming to profitability takes on a new level of urgency given the pressure on the legacy linear TV business from cord-cutting,” though he remained upbeat on Disney’s stock.

“[W]e remain bullish the Parks segment growth outlook, continue to expect it will represent the majority of Disney’s EPS [earnings per share] over time, and believe shares are undervaluing the Parks assets at current levels,” he wrote as he maintained a overweight rating and $125 target price on the shares.

Bank of America analyst Jessica Reif Ehrlich weighed in that the latest report was “not as bad as it seems.”

“We believe underlying theme park demand remains healthy and the operating income miss is largely due to one-time items vs. moderating demand,” she wrote. “In linear networks, DIS is experiencing many of the same headwinds other industry participants are facing, but we believe their iconic brands and scaled/growing DTC service position them well to better manage these headwinds and industry transitions relative to peers.”

She rates the stock a buy but cut her price target to $115 from $127.

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