Snap Stock: What to Make of Analyst Recommendations?

By Evan Niu, CFA Markets Fool.com

The recently public Snap (NYSE: SNAP) saw a little bump in its share price in late March after sell-side analysts gave the company mostly positive coverage.

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In this episode of Industry Focus: Tech, Motley Fool analyst Dylan Lewis and contributor Evan Niu explain what the buy-side sell-side divide means, and then dive into the coverage from these analysts and what they are saying about Snap.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on March 31, 2017.

Dylan Lewis: Welcome to Industry Focus, the podcast that dives into a different sector of the stock market every day.It's Friday, March 31, and we're talking analyst coverage andSnap. I'm your host, Dylan Lewis, and I'm joined on Skype by fool.com senior tech specialist, Evan Niu. Evan, what's up!

Evan Niu: Going well, just drinking my coffee.

Lewis: Yeah,I'm happy to get you before you have the big outing with the kids to the aquarium, right?

Niu: That's right,going later today, having a family day.

Lewis: That'sthe life of a contractor, right there.[laughs] So, Evan, shares of Snap enjoyeda nice little bump earlier this week thanks to some analyst coverage which seemed to give the stock a pretty rosy outlook. For today's show, I figure we'll talka little bit about the sell-side analysts, and the life of the sell-side analysts,the people that are putting out these research notes, and run through therecent research we've seen andhow we feel about it andhow it jives with some of the stuff we've read and our own opinions. Beforewe get too far into the discussion,I think there are probably some listeners out there that aren'tsuper familiar with the buy-side sell-side dynamics of the investment industry.Do you want to run through that first?

Niu: Sure. Basically, the buy-side areanalysts that are working for funds that are actually buying the stocks. They're the ones thatactively have money in whatever they're picking. The sell-sideanalysts are the guys you see on TV,the research notes you hear put out. Those analysts work atbanks or investment firmsand all they do is do the research andtry to sell that research to the buy-side. The sell-sideusually cannot ownany of the stocks that they research forobjectivity purposes. A lot of the times,what they try to do is try to get the buy-side tocome trade at their brokerage, and then the sell-side analysts get a small percentage of the commissions that thoseclients pay. And often, they will pay inflatedcommissions on purpose through an arrangement called soft dollars, which, from the fund'sperspective, shifts costsfrom the management side to the investors. It's kind of a shady thing that'salways been there, but that's just the way it works.[laughs]

Lewis: So,when we see these notes coming out, or,when we see new price targets,these are all coming from the sell-side analysts, andthis is them publishing research. Really, it's a client book-building method for them, and it's a way to build buzzabout companies that they're following, and put out their thoughts on them.

Niu: Exactly. It'smore or less just trying to get exposure, marketing pitch, to say, "Wehave this really good research," andtry to attract more clients to buy that research, whereas a buy-side analyst, if a buy-sideanalyst does their own research,let's say they do a super deep dive and they have some information they think is super valuable,obviously, they're not just going to advertise it,they're going to go act on it and try to make money on it,if they have better information than the rest of the market. That's the goal. But, yeah, so, they'renot going to be the ones that are out there talking up too much. Of course, sometimes you see people on TV that are like, so-and-so capital management. They do like to go out there and be seen in the media. Butmost of the time when you hear about price targets, readings, underweight, overweight, buy, hold, whatever, that stuff is all sell side.

Lewis: By my count, looking at Snap,we have six buy ratings, two hold ratings, and one sell rating from analysts so far. Alot of price targets seem to be in the high $20s and low $30s fromsome of the underwriting banks from the IPO. It'skind of funny how that works out, huh?

Niu: Yeah. The underwriters have alonger quiet period. The quiet periodjust went up, so now all the underwriters can startputting out their own ratings. Some of theother ratings we've seen before were from other firms. If you look at the IPO, there were seven underwriters. One is boutique and really doesn't issue ratings,Allen & Company. Onehasn't issued a rating yet,as of right now, they haven't issued one, that'sBarclays. So,out of the five remaining underwriters, there are four buys and one hold. So, of course, it looks a little like they're biased,because they underwrote this giant deal. But,to be fair, there are some other more objective ratings that have come out in the past few days also that are buy ratings, likeCowen, Citi,Jefferies,RBC,and a couple or some others last week or so. So, it's not like you have to be an underwriter to like the stock,there are certainly other peoplewho had nothing to do with the deal that are out there being bullish. But,as far as investors are concerned, it looks a little biased,but there is supposed to be thisChinese wall betweeninvestment banking and research, but I'm sure the analysts are very well aware that if the other side of the business has this huge deal,it doesn't really look good if you go out and start bashing it,because they're probably not going to win those deals in the future.

Lewis: Yeah. I thinkbefore we get too far into this conversation, it's good to be clear,there are regulations in place toprevent the investment banking arm of a firm fromreaching into research analyst coverage. Like you said, there's the wallbetween the business. Usually, folkscan't even be in the same room with each otherwithout a chaperone or something like that. But, there aresome incentives at play. Really, you can't be surprised by this,because at the end of the day, the underwriting banksjust spent months talking about how great Snap isto all of their clients,all of these institutional investors, all these high-net-worth individuals. So, it's really not all that surprising for an analyst from that firmto feel the same way about it, right?

Niu: Yeah. Theyshould be able to, objectively,if they really felt that way. But the optics would bereally hard to justify. Like you mentioned,they've been talking this thing up. The underwriters make all sorts of money on these deals,not only in terms of the fees that they collect,but in terms of,once the trading startsand they have their big clients. The whole goal of these IPOs is to put together,engineer a nice pop on the first day. Mostpeople say the IPO went great if you get a big jump. Snap did on the first day,and went up about 40% on the first day oftrading relative to the offering price. They have a lot of incentivesto make the deal look good. And then,of course, once the quiet period is over,if the analysts come out and start bashing the company,it doesn't really make a lot of sense. That's not to say thatit's impossible, I'm sure there are cases that it's happened. I don't have any off the top of my head. But, I think you'd have to be really naiveto think that these Chinese walls work exactly as they're intended to all the time.

Lewis: Yeah. And whileit is tempting to drop conspiracy theorieswith this type of stuff,I do think it's worth remembering that,like I said, these banks spenta ton of time telling institutions andhigh-net-worth individuals what a good company Snap is, and really selling Snap. So,losing that business and tarnishing the relationship with thoseinstitutions or those high-net-worth individualsthat they spent so much time bringing in with these research notes would bealmost a bigger loss for an investment bankor aresearch firm or aninvestment management company. So, that's something that plays into this. As an aside, I think the quiet periodand the regulations are set up in a way that reinforces all of this. We talked about howthey can't put out any notes on this. That's only for 25 days after the issuance. Togo back to this, they just talked abouthow excited they are about the company on their roadshow. Nothing isgoing to change, there aren't any new financials out. So,I think one way they could improve theseregulations is maybe by forcing analyststo wait until the company has reported a quarter of financials first,because that would actually give them the chance to say something new. And then, if they wanted to put out bearishcoverage, they would always have the ability to hide behind the fact that,in the most recent quarter, they saw something they didn't like. Itgives them an out.

Niu: Right,it could give them a little bit more justification. ButI think the challenge there is, earnings schedules areso tricky, and they can be so specific to each company. So,I think the regulations are meant to -- I guess they felt 25 days is a good enough period of time.

Lewis: Yeah. Thetakeaway here is,you should never expect to see a research analystcome out and bash a company that his or her firm hadunderwritten the IPO for,it's just probably not going to happen all that often.

Evan, we've both been bearish on Snap. I thought, since there wasa lot of optimistic notes coming out about the company,it might be good for us to look at it andsee what the other side of the coin is, andwhether we agree or disagree withany of the points that they're making. One of the first things that I clued in on here was a quotein the research note from Heath Terry ofGoldman Sachs. He says, "Snap is a venture-stage investment in the public markets, something unseen in recent years where nearly all internet companies waited until later stages of growth and profitability to go public. While this clearly carries a higher risk profile, we believe it also comes with higher reward potential." This issomething I agree with. I don't know about you.

Niu: Yeah,I think it's kind of an apt description. I agree thatI don't necessarily think it's a good thing. I mean, there's also a reason whymostcompanies go public later in the stage. Trying to assess a venture-stage investment isextremely complicated and hard, and it's crazy risky. I don't think it'snecessarily a good thing for public investors who don't have that kind of experience to analyze companies from at that stage. It'sjust a lot trickier to value and invest in, which is whythat stage is usually done in the private markets. To open it up topublic investors and say,you have a chance to invest in an earlier stage than most companies would do this, yeah,I agree there's probably ahigher risk that translates to higher reward,but I think investors have this natural tendency,whenever they hear that phrase, "high risk, high reward," they don't focus on the high-risk part. They focus on the high-reward part.

Lewis: Theyjust see the dollar signs, right?

Niu: Right. Butyou have to put equal weightinto both sides of that equation. I think the risks here areextremely high. And it's true that they mightturn into high reward. But I don't think public investors are as good at that, at weighing out all the risks fora company at this stage as an experienced venture capitalist is.

Lewis: Yeah, Snap is stillso early in themonetization strategy, and what they will look like as a money-making business,if they ever become one, is still really hard to make out. I chatted with the founder ofIndiegogo, Slava Rubin, andBill Clark fromMicroVentures, a venture capitalist, whileI was at South by Southwest, and he said, venture-stage businesses, 7 out of 10 of them go belly up.I don't expect Snapto go bankrupt by any means. But that gives you a sense of the profile forthe type of business that Snap is being equated to, and the idea that,it's really hard to picture what it'll look like in its full form. Because of that,you have the higher risk and potential for large gains down the road,but the downside is certainly there.

Niu: Yeah,I think that part of my skepticism also is,maybe there's a sense thatthey want to take the company public earlier than mostother companies might do it because they want to cash out andtake advantage of the environment and the hype. And also --again, I'm being super skeptical here -- maybe they internally think unit growth is hitting a peak, so they're like, "Let'sgo ahead and cash out now. There's tons of hype,people want to buy in, and we're hitting this wall. And the hype might fadeaway if we don't do this."I just think thatmaybe part of it is that they wanted to cash out. If you look athow they structured the deal,it's not very investor-friendly,it's not very shareholder-friendly,from a governance perspective. Maybe that's a small part of it.

Lewis: And companiescontrol when they go public, for the most part. So, if you're looking at your financials and the corebusiness metrics, and you are seeing that sequentiallyuser growth is 3% in the most recent quarter,you might decide it's starting to look like a good time to go publicbecause your books are about as good as they're going to lookbefore you really start rolling out the coremonetization strategy.

Niu: It's all hype right now.

Lewis: Yeah,exactly. I know,to go back to that, one of the things thatboth of us were a little worried about when we were looking at the IPO was user growth. They're at about 160 milliondaily active users now,like I said, up just 3%sequentiallyfrom the previous quarter. That was 48% year-over-year growth, though. One of the things I saw in some ofthese research notes was someuser growth estimates. I thought it would be interesting to run through these and see what you think. Cowen estimated that Snap would have roughly 195 million daily activesat the end of 2017,which would be good for 24% year-over-year growth, and would basically be a 5% sequential growth rate for the rest of the year. I actually think that's fairly reasonable.

Niu: All these analysts,all these estimates are just numbers in the spreadsheet. They just plug in these growth estimates.I think the more important question is,how do they actually get there,as opposed to just assuming these numbers on some spreadsheet are all fine and dandy. Andthat's how all models work, of course, that's what they are. But at the Fool,we tend to think about it morein terms of business on the ground. How are they going to do this? How are they going to grow users,how are they going to grow their ad sales? Becauseall these models will say, "We expect this number of revenue by 2019 or whenever." ButI think there's a lot of uncertainty with Snap'sexecution going forward, in terms of both ad revenue, trying to grow that, as well as trying to get more users on the platform. I don't know,I think it's a more complicated answer than a lot of these analysts make it seem to be. Does that make sense?!

Lewis: Yeah,I wanted to bring it up to show,this is what a rosy outlook looks like. Forgrowth of the platform, that doesn't seem crazy to me. But, one of the things I am a little bit worried about, we haven't talked about this a ton in ourpast coverage of the company,I think international growth, particularly in developing markets,is going to be a lot harder for Snapthan it has been for some of the other social media companies,because it's such a video-intensive platform.

Niu: Right,that's a good point. Video requires a lot more bandwidth, and a lot of emerging markets don't have a lot of good LTEnetwork bandwidthon the infrastructure side. LTEpenetration is quite low in some markets. Which is a challenge for the broader smartphone market to grow in those areas, too. But for Snapspecifically, because they rely on higher-speed connections,because the app is so video and photo intensive, yeah, that's another thing that's going to hold them back.

Lewis: One thing thatI didn't really see a ton of discussion about in the notes was Snap'sstatus as a camera company. Frankly, that was one of the thingsthatI was most worried about in looking at theprospectus and the general vision for the company. Most of theseanalysts are looking at Snap as if it's a social mediaplatform and a traditional online business, andso much of the messagingfrom Evan Spiegel and management has been, "We're a camera company, we'regoing to be playing in hardware." Clearly, there'ssome sort of integration they see there as being super valuable. To me, that'salways been a vision and strategy question mark, andI was a little surprised thatpeople didn't touch on that more.

Niu: I'm kind of glad they didn't. Like we've talked about before,we think it's a weird way to brand themselvesand identify themselves. It doesn't really make a lot of sense. So,I'm glad that the analysts aren't reallyputting too much emphasis on that,because as of right now,that's a tiny portion of the business. To focus there likemanagement says to focus there would probably be misplaced. So,I think it's encouraging that they are focusing more on the ad side of the business. To speak more on the ad side, from theMorgan Stanleynote,they were talking about howa lot of the upside they see is from ad load. Right now, they estimate that they're at something like 0.6 ads per daily active user per hour. Theyexpect that to rise to eight. That's about a 13 times increaseover the next year or two. But this iskind of a catch-22, because Snap is huge amongmillennials, but millennials hate ads. So, while, of course, in any context,if you increase your ad load,you risk hurting your user experience, you risk your users not liking it. ButI think that concern is particularly important for millennials, who might beeven more sensitive to an increased ad load that would start hurting theexperience more than otherdemographics. Again, this goes down to this whole idea ofexecution on the ad business. There's another note, theCredit Suisseone said this is a "margin expansion story," becausethey're expecting sales to grow faster than cost of goods sold. ButI don't really think that says a whole lot, since Snap has anegative gross margin right now. Getting that topositive territory should just betable stakes, you should just expect them to do that. Theuncertainty there iswhether or not they can actually execute to grow ad sales. There is quite a bit of visibility into what their costs are going to require, because they have thesecloud infrastructure spending commitments. So,can they grow ad salesfaster than that? That's a huge question, and that'sgoing to really determine, in terms of this whole margin expansion idea, if they can actually do that. So, yeah,there's just so much uncertainty here. I don't know how they're going to actually execute on all of these fronts and live up to these buy ratings.

Lewis: Reading through the buy ratings,I will say, even as someone who has been a bear for quite some time,I can see it. There are certain elements of Snapthat are very interesting. You talk aboutincreasing the ad load. The user growth stuff still terrifies me. But you see the success thatFacebookhas had as an online business,and it starts to creep into your head, "Maybe I've been a little too pessimistic on this." Then I come back to valuation, and I'm like, "Nope,I'm staying away from this for now." ButI am forcing myself to be a little bit more open-minded with this company and say,if the valuation drops to something a little bit more reasonable, I might give it a look. But for me, it's always good to read what people whotake the other side of a stock feel,because it forces you to balance out your opinion. It hasn't dramatically changedanything for me. I don't know about you, but it doesn't sound like it.

Niu: No,I'm still pretty skeptical. Another thing to think about is, a lot of the spending that's going on on Snapchat, from myunderstanding, it's a lot of experimental budgetsfrom advertisers,because they're trying to test the waters, because they know Snapchat has this huge base among millennials, which are hard to reach. So,they're trying to see if they can get return on theiradvertising dollars there. But now, the onus is on Snapto actually deliver results on those ads. Millennials have thispracticed apathy toward ads in general, which is why it's so hard to reach them. If Snap is unable to actually deliver results, that ad spending is going to dry up pretty quick. That being said, it's important that Snap is such a young platform. So,it's hard to know. They could kill it,but they can also totally screw it up,and you just don't know yet at this point. I do think it's a little disconcerting thatEvan Spiegel isreportedly really adverse to data-driven decision making. He relies more on experience. If you want to pitch him something, you tell him how the users will feel, what they're going to experience. Youdon't give him numbers. Which is weird,because advertising businesses are fundamentally all built on data, they're all numbers games. So, it's this weird thing like,why aren't you taking the data more seriously? Facebook itself has had some misstepsover the past six months or so regarding their ad metrics, and they'regetting a bunch of crap about, their metrics aren't good, their data is not good, which isextremely important to advertisers. So, again, it calls into questionthe risk, and how well they can actually develop this completely new ad business that they've never really done before. So, yeah,I'm still pretty skeptical overall, I would say, despite these buy ratings.

Lewis: Yeah. Onthat note with advertising and execution,I think if you're looking for signals and you use Snap and theirproducts, one thing to watch for is whether the ads you see on there drive you to something, and whether it's a transaction or to consumecontent or something like that, or if it's brandpresence stuff,because the ad placements that will drive you to some sort of call to action thatgets you to sign up for something orputs you in a situation where you can buy something,those will always command a premium. There's always going to be room in advertisingbudgets for brand presence and justbeing in front of consumers. Butanything that can actually drive you to a consumer decision is going to command a much higher value in ad budgets. That's really where I thinka lot of spend is going to go. That's something thatFacebook has done incredibly well, in showing the ROI to advertisers, and showing, "We'renot just going to have your products up there and people can like them, we'regoing to be able to get you into a position where people are going to be buying things." So, as a consumer, that's a way to have the finger onthe pulse of success of Snap and their advertising business as they roll it out.Evan,anything else you saw in the notes? Anything elsegoing on before I let you go?

Niu: No,I think that'll do it.

Lewis: Listeners, thatdoes it for this episode of Industry Focus. If you have any questions, or just want to reach out and say, "Hey," you can shoot us an email at industryfocus@fool.com. You can always tweet us @MFIndustryFocus. If you're looking for more of our stuff, you can subscribe on iTunes, or check out the Fool's family of shows at fool.com/podcasts. As always, people on the program may own companies discussed on the show, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against stocks mentioned, so don't buy or sell anything based solely on what you hear. For Evan Niu, I'm Dylan Lewis, thanks for listening and Fool on!

Dylan Lewis owns shares of Facebook. Evan Niu, CFA owns shares of Facebook. Evan Niu, CFA has the following options: long January 2018 $120 calls on Facebook. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Facebook. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.