January 26, 2011 / 5:05 PM / 7 years ago

Netflix: Romance, or momentum stock horror flick?

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Investors fearful that high-flying stocks may be set for a drubbing will be eyeing Netflix’s earnings with their fingers on the “sell” button on Wednesday afternoon.

The stock is one of a group of outperformers that have lost momentum since disappointing results from F5 Networks last week, and there is danger the fallout may spread if there are further setbacks.

The problem is not that these are bad companies that lose money. It’s that the shares have risen so quickly that they have become detached from their fundamental growth prospects, factoring in only the best-case scenario.

Options players expect volatility in the shares after it reports results Wednesday, with a 9.5 percent move in the stock expected by Friday. The activity is not as bullish as it has been in past quarters, however.

“Investors are definitely divided on how the stock would move post earnings, especially as it comes after tech companies have been showing a mixed batch of earnings,” said Steve Claussen, chief investment strategist at online brokerage OptionHouse.com.

The third-largest U.S. video subscription service after Comcast and DirecTV is expected to report earnings of 71 cents a share on revenue of 597.49 million, compared with 56 cents a share and $444.54 million in the year-ago quarter, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

Investors have been quick to sell companies that don’t surpass expectations by a wide margin this season, as F5 showed. Netflix hasn’t been hit as hard as some of those names.

F5 lost nearly 22 percent on January 20 after falling short of lofty expectations. It has since fallen further while the S&P 500 is up in that time.

Netflix fell 3 percent that day, and is down 1 percent since. It is currently hovering near key technical levels where clusters of activity would be expected. It was trading at $183.96 on Wednesday, just below its 14- and 50-day moving average, but above support around $182 a share.

Shares are well below its 52-week high of $209.24, reached on December 1, 2010.

A Thomson Reuters StarMine analysis of the company’s future growth prospects put its value at about $64.13 a share, or about one-third its most recent closing price. Like F5 and others, earnings growth has been strong, but may be reflected in the share price.

The most active options on the stock were weekly options that expire on Friday, just 48 hours after the earnings report.

The most active strikes were the Jan $210 and Jan $215 calls and the Jan $160 and Jan $165 puts. Those are all out-of-the-money, suggesting bets on post-earnings volatility which is common for a name like Netflix, said Ryan Detrick, senior technical analyst at Schaeffer’s Investment Research.

The put-to-call ratio on the stock was about 1.12, suggesting the bias is slightly in favor of put options, though the number isn’t far from its 20-day moving average.

Equity call options convey the right to buy a stock at a fixed price at any time until expiration, while puts give the right to sell the stock at a preset price up to a certain date.

“The stock did have a tremendous run but the charts show that recently it has dipped to the $175 level, which is in the low range compared to how it has performed since the middle of December. That leaves room for the stock to move higher in the short-term, technically,” Detrick said.

The company has shaken up Hollywood’s old exhibition-DVD home sales model, starting with its home-delivery system and now through streaming movies and TV programs direct to homes.

Major studios are moving to try and staunch its phenomenal growth by limiting the supply of its content or raising prices charged.

But analysts point out the stock’s price may already reflect these fundamentals. The stock rose 280 percent in 2010 and is up 6 percent so far in 2011.

“From a valuation perspective, there’s no longer a margin of error,” Brett Harriss, a research analyst at Gabelli & Co in Rye, New York, who covers Netflix, said last week.

Additional reporting by Yinka Adegoke, Editing by Andrew Hay

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