In some ways, Groupon (NASDAQ:GRPN) looks like an attractive stock. Groupon stock is reasonably cheap based on both EBITDA and free cash flow.
There’s some potential for GRPN to be acquired at some point. If Groupon could just consistently grow, GRPN stock likely would climb above $3.50.
It’s that “if” that’s the big problem, however. Since Groupon stock crashed soon after its 2011 IPO amid accounting concerns, the potential has always been there.
Indeed, in 2017, as I wrote last year, GRPN made some progress. In 2018, it hit its original guidance for the year. And yet GRPN stock hit another multi-year low in December, and stumbled again after it reported its Q4 results and provided 2019 guidance back in February.
At these levels, Groupon stock looks somewhat intriguing, even to a longtime skeptic like myself. There are scenarios under which GRPN stock can rally. But that path has been open for years now, and GRPN simply can’t seem to get there.
Why Groupon Stock Looks Intriguing
What is different about Groupon stock now versus a few years ago is that the stock now looks reasonably cheap. Cost-cutting in 2017 raised GRPN’s margins. Its profit rose last year, as its adjusted EBITDA increased 8%, and its adjusted EPS climbed from $0.11 to $0.18, albeit with some help from corporate tax reform.
As a result, the valuation of Groupon stock looks fairly reasonable. It trades at about 19 times its 2018 EPS, and its guidance indicates that its profits will be roughly similar this year. Free cash flow last year, excluding a settlement payment to IBM (NYSE:IBM), was $163 million. According to GRPN, that figure should be roughly similar in 2019. At that level, the price-free cash flow ratio of GRPN stock will be about 12.
It’s true that the company’s 2019 guidance was disappointing, and that’s a key reason why Groupon stock fell 11% after the company released its Q4 results. But management cited a target of $300 million of EBITDA in 2020, which would entail an increase of 10%+. If GRPN attains that goal, its enterprise value-EBITDA ratio would be below seven.
Those multiples are cheap in general, and they’re enormously cheap, considering the valuations of other, similar internet-platform stocks. ANGI Homeservices (NASDAQ:ANGI) trades at something like 25 times its 2019 EBITDA. Match Group (NASDAQ:MTCH) is trading at about 30 times its 2019 free cash flow and something like 20 times its EBITDA. GrubHub (NYSE:GRUB) and Yelp (NASDAQ:YELP) trade at elevated levels as well.
Groupon stock doesn’t deserve those multiples. But at least, renewed investor confidence in GRPN could cause the current multiples of Groupon stock to expand. Higher multiples and higher growth can combine to sharply raise the price of GRPN stock.
But that’s been the case for years now. Even when the company’s profits were lower, bulls asked, “what if GRPN just traded at one times its sales?”
Acquisition rumors have swirled constantly over that stretch as well. They continue to do so.
GRPN Stock’s Catch
And yet…it’s 2019 and GRPN is back trading in the mid-$3s. It hasn’t been able to grow, as its revenue has declined for 12 straight quarters. Some of the pressure on Groupon’s revenue in past years has came from the company pulling back in certain international markets and de-emphasizing Groupon Goods. But even management after Q4 admitted that the company’s performance in the second half of 2018 was disappointing.
An acquisition of GRPN could make some sense, but where are the buyers? Why, exactly, would anyone pull the trigger in 2019 or 2020 when the opportunity has been present for some time?
The same issue is true of the company’s 2020 guidance. Management is arguing that investments made this year will drive growth next year. Yet, except for the progress that the company made in 2017, GRPN feels like it’s been a “next year” story for about six years now. What’s different now? And how, exactly, are the company’s profits supposed to rise by double-digit percentage levels when its billings and revenue are falling?
Groupon lost some 2 million active users in North America in 2018 alone, according to its Q4 results. (I believe I’m one of the 2.1 million.) Its products simply aren’t relevant enough to consumers.
At the end of the day, the company’s problem is relatively simple, and it’s the same as it’s been for some time. Specifically, it’s not clear that Groupon’s business model really works. Consumers like discounts,, but the quality of merchants on Groupon simply isn’t good enough to keep driving growth.
Meanwhile, the company’s model isn’t really a “tech” model. GRPN still has well over 2,000 salespeople. Business runs through the company’s website and, increasingly, its app. But, at its core, GRPN has a labor-intensive model that doesn’t grow well. And it’s a model that relies on outside help: Groupon’s own 10-K cites headwinds from Google’s changes to its search algorithm and its development of the “promotions” tab in Gmail, which has hurt the response to Groupon’s emails.
Groupon stock does seem to have some value, given its profitability and positive free cash flow. That’s why GRPN stock is tempting, particularly at its low price.
But the qualitative concerns about GRPN have been going on for so long that it’s difficult to ignore them. It’s in a really, really tough business. And unless Groupon can either drive consistent growth or find a “white knight” acquirer, it’s hard to see how the next few years will look much different from the last few.
As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.