The Day Ahead: Portal earnings preview

Financial problems on the portal front
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Commentary: When Yahoo! reports its earnings, 10 January, it's likely that the company won't be able to say anything that will impress investors. At least Yahoo! isn't alone -- other portals have even less of a chance to please Wall Street.

Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodget, like many analysts, expects Yahoo to talk down its first quarter guidance, while hitting its fourth quarter numbers. Some analysts called for Yahoo! to issue a profit warning last month.

Needless to say, it isn't the best of times for the leading portal. On one side, it's being hit by online ad worries. On the other side, the peanut gallery is screaming for a more diversified revenue stream. To shut up its critics, look for Yahoo! to talk a lot about monetizing its user base. Last week, it started charging for its auction listings -- a good first step, but hardly a revenue bonanza.

Here's what to watch when the Web portals start unveiling results over the next few weeks:

Yahoo! -- The portal giant is cornered. Management, which is usually conservative, will have to come out swinging to please investors. It isn't going to happen. Yahoo! will probably talk down earnings estimates for the first quarter and 2001. That outcome, however, isn't so bad. Wall Street will breathe a sigh of relief just to get the gloom and doom over with. Yahoo!'s "whisper numbers" point to an earnings miss.

According to earnings tracking firm, First Call, Yahoo! is expected to report earnings of 13 cents a share, on sales of $310m.

Analysts said the outlook is everything. Blodget expects the company to project 2001 earnings to be in the 50 cents to 55 cents a share range, about 5 cents to 10 cents below consensus estimates. If Yahoo! projects earnings of less than 50 cents a share, shares could fall below $20, said Blodget.

Terra Lycos -- Two words will sum up this fourth quarter earnings report -- pro forma. Terra Lycos is mixing Terra's calendar fiscal year with Lycos' fiscal year, which ended 31 July. That means a lot of results will be restated for comparison purposes. We also haven't heard from Lycos since its August earnings report, which looked pretty impressive. But a lot has changed since then. Some analysts have said that Terra Lycos is practically giving ads away, to cope with the online ad slowdown.

In addition, Terra Lycos will have to hand out guidance for its upcoming fiscal year. Toss in Terra's free ISP business and international operations and you'll have an interesting -- not to mention, confusing -- earnings report.

Watch the immediate reaction to Terra Lycos' first quarter as a merged entity. It may take time to sort out the results. One positive is that Terra Lycos is getting $1bn in revenue from Bertelsmann. ABN Amro analyst, Arthur Newman, said Terra Lycos is likely to use recognized revenue from Bertelsmann to smooth out results in upcoming quarters.

Consensus: A loss of 21 cents a share on sales of $151m.

Excite@Home -- The benign neglect of Excite.com will continue in the fourth quarter. Analysts expect traffic and users to slip again for Excite. As for the Matchlogic marketing subsidiary, it'll remain buried. The @Home broadband service is likely to meet its subscriber targets, but analysts are wondering out loud where @Home fits in the AT&T breakup. Does Ma Bell even want or need to deal with Excite@Home? "Excite@Home is trapped in the AT&T structure," said Newman.

Even analysts who remain relatively bullish are in a wait-and-see mode. William Blair analyst, Abhishek Gami, rates Excite@Home a "long-term buy", but admits there are a lot of clouds hanging over the company. All Excite@Home needs to do is clarify its 2001 outlook, pick its future chief executive and announce its turnaround strategy for its faltering media operations, he said. That's all. Consensus: A loss of 9 cents a share, excluding goodwill, on sales of $188m.

NBCI -- The pain will continue in the fourth quarter as will the restructuring. This ever-challenged portal has been redesigned so investors should look for some traffic traction and synergy with NBC. Analysts aren't expecting much, and neither should you. NBCI has a few issues -- dot-com exposure, a lot of barter revenue, low ad rates and significant upheaval. Consensus: A loss of 81 cents a share, excluding goodwill, on sales of $36m.

Disney Internet Group -- Disney's Internet arm promised revenue growth in its first fiscal quarter, just in time for things to get dicey. The company's December sales may get a big boost from pushing a lot of Mouse gear over the holidays.

Look for Disney's Internet arm to play up its relationship with Disney as well as hit sites, such as ESPN.com. If Disney Internet Group shows some traction this quarter, it may bode well for future results. Shareholders deserve some good news. Consensus: A loss of 42 cents a share, excluding goodwill.

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