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Technology > Tech Biz
It's Diller time
Last week's earnings report shows that InterActiveCorp's recent plummet was misguided.
November 8, 2004: 12:19 PM EST
By Eric Hellweg, CNN/Money contributing columnist

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BOSTON (CNN/Money) - Barry Diller has long been an enigma to Hollywood and, frankly, Wall Street. And on Wednesday, when he announced InterActiveCorp's third-quarter earnings and made official his long-rumbled threat to stop providing earnings guidance to the Street, his mystery quotient shot up.

But so did the company's stock (Research). And the fact that its turnaround came just a week and a half after it had reached a new 52-week low (40 percent off its high) makes this an even better comeback story.

Confident enough for buybacks

The ramp was caused by the company's strong earnings -- in particular net income of $92.7 million, up from $22 million year over year -- coupled with the fact that Diller announced a pretty significant stock buyback plan of 80 million shares "over time."

Wall Street and investors love corporate share buybacks because they see the move as the ultimate signal of a company's confidence. Was that the main reason for the stock's nearly 15 percent run-up after the earnings call? No.

"It's purely the earnings numbers," says Mark Mahaney, an analyst with American Technology Research. "Sentiment was negative going into the numbers, with a widespread expectation there would be a miss -- including us."

The biggest surprise, he says, was that cash flow from the travel business was $25 million more than expected.

Ah, yes, surprises. Diller's codification of his no-guidance notion means that investors in IAC will likely be hit with pretty significant surprises in future earnings calls.

What that means is that if you're considering picking up some shares of this company -- and I still think it's relatively cheap, despite the 15 percent increase -- going long is your best bet. The no-guidance move means it will be tougher to work this as a momentum play. With no guidance, analysts have to do their own work, rather than relying on company-provided numbers.

So estimates will vary widely and wildly, making it more likely that an earnings call will shock a sizable number of people covering the company.


For an example of what I mean, take a look at the next-quarter earnings estimates for Google (Research), which doesn't issue guidance, and Yahoo! (Research), which does.

Both companies are essentially playing the same game, but analysts estimate Yahoo!'s next-quarter earnings at 10 to 12 cents per share and Google's at 67 to 84 cents per share. The latter is a pretty big target.

Obviously an earnings surprise can be either positive or negative, but the murkiness makes it tough for hop-in, hop-out-type traders.

Barry Diller
Shareholder Relations

I think InterActiveCorp is worthy of long-term consideration, however. Unlike a Google -- which is a one-trick golden pony -- IAC is well diversified.

To be sure, the company faces some significant challenges to its travel-related properties -- its primary income generator. Chief among them: Higher hotel occupancy means IAC makes lower margins on rooms. It also doesn't help that most of the low-cost airlines don't play with agents, preferring to sell directly to consumers.

Still, I like the portfolio Diller has amassed, and if you believe in e-commerce, IAC has some fantastic companies in its maw.

"The valuation has always been reasonable on this name," Mahaney says. "The multiples are materially lower here. There's room for upside."

One final note: Though I cautioned not to work this as a momentum-based, short-term investment, shorts currently hold almost a quarter of IAC's float. You can bet they're going to be covering pretty quickly on these recent gains. Which means if you're thinking of getting in, now might not be a bad time.

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