LinkedIn Corp. Earnings: Nice Quarter, Tough Year

Though it's hardly definitive, investors can gauge the market's sentiment toward a pending earnings release by the manner in which its stock is traded leading up the announcement. For LinkedIn shareholders, this past week has been a head-scratcher. Most industry pundits expected that LinkedIn would once again beat estimates, yet its stock price has meandered this past week and was down slightly ahead of CEO Jeff Weiner and team's sharing of Q1 results.

Consensus analyst forecasts were for $636 million in revenue and $0.56 per share in earnings on a non-GAAP basis (excluding one-time items). Both would have been significant improvements compared with the same period last year. In 2014's Q1, LinkedIn generated $473 million in sales, though a jump in operating costs left its earnings per share in the red. Overhead was expected to continue rising as LinkedIn assimilates acquisitions and boosts hiring, and it did -- in a big way.

Just the factsIt should be noted that LinkedIn forecast Q1 2015 earnings of $618 million to $622 million, and non-GAAP earnings of $0.53 per share. Of course, LinkedIn wouldn't be the first publicly traded company to "game" its earnings results. But clearly, analysts were expecting much more in these key areas -- and they got it. LinkedIn's revenues jumped 35% compared with the year-ago period, to $638 million, slightly ahead of the $636 million analysts had estimated.

On the earnings front, LinkedIn again narrowly beat forecasts -- both its own deflated outlook and the more optimistic view of analysts -- by generating non-GAAP EPS of $0.57. Obliterating its own somewhat muted expectations, let alone surpassing the Street's forecast's should be cause for celebration, right? Based on after-hours trading -- like trading leading up to an earnings call, hardly definitive but still somewhat telling -- investors weren't just less than impressed; they were downright angry.

As of this writing -- which is shortly after LinkedIn shared its quarterly results -- shares are trading down a nearly unfathomable $60 a share! That's a nearly 25% decline in a matter of minutes. Why all the haters?

That bad, really?Not unexpectedly, overhead once again skyrocketed in Q1 compared with a year ago. Total costs and expenses jumped a whopping $170 million to nearly $675 million, resulting in GAAP EPS (including one-time items) of negative-$0.34. LinkedIn's net loss on a GAAP basis was over three times that of 2014's Q1. But the increased spending shouldn't have come as a surprise -- certainly not a surprise that big -- as CFO Steve Sordello made it clear that it will be par for the course in the immediate future. So if it's presumably not GAAP results, what could it be?

Well, LinkedIn provided revenue guidance for the year slightly below Q1's expectations, along with significant drops in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization -- not to mention a $40 million jump in stock-based compensation. What does all that equate to? Not just a drop in expected non-GAAP EPS this year; that would be too kind. Instead of the $2.95 non-GAAP EPS LinkedIn projected for the year just last quarter, that figure has fallen like a lead weight to just $1.90 a share.

Having less of an impact in the near term, but still worth noting, is that LinkedIn's Talent Solutions division once again made up more than 60% of total revenues -- 62%, to be precise. Weiner has mentioned on multiple occasions -- and correctly so -- that LinkedIn needs to grow its two other divisions to further its revenue diversification plans. Apparently, the gains made in "spreading the revenue wealth" in Q4 turned out to be one step forward, two steps back.

At Friday's open, LinkedIn will trade below the $200 watermark for the first time in nearly six months following its lowered expectations for 2015. What does that mean for investors? Opportunity. The foundation of why LinkedIn analysts have a consensus buy on the stock hasn't changed. What has changed is that expenses having even more of an impact than originally thought will affect the bottom line for the foreseeable future. But that makes for a great, long-term value opportunity for investors with some patience.

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Tim Brugger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends LinkedIn. The Motley Fool owns shares of LinkedIn. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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