With the dreaded tax season in full-swing and the stock market continuing its volatile and unpredictable run, one company - Intuit Inc. (INTU) - Get Report - is sitting pretty. And why shouldn't it? So far in 2016, unit sales of its tax preparation software, TurboTax, are up 9% and its stock is outperforming the broader market.
Will Intuit's run continue? Experts say yes, but perhaps at a slower pace. Several analysts believe the company's recent stock selloff is overdone.
Intuit is the ultimate defensive play, market experts say. It doesn't have exposure to China, falling oil prices or interest rates. And people have to fill out their taxes in good economic times and bad.
"In this kind of a stock market, Intuit offers something quite compelling - which is no emerging market exposure, no real currency exposure, and a very stable business," said Gil Luria, a managing director at Wedbush Securities. "It has very little cyclical exposure."
Intuit's TurboTax is off to a strong start in 2016, as it appears to be snagging customers from both professional tax preparers and online rivals. The latest data from the Internal Revenue Service show self-prepared e-filings are up 3% so far in 2016. But TurboTax is seeing even bigger gains, with 9% growth.
By contrast, assisted e-filings are down 5% year-to-date.
"TurboTax has clearly taken early market share" in the do-it-yourself tax filing market, said Scott Schneeberger, a managing director at Oppenheimer & Co., in a note.
Intuit's flashy marketing campaign and free software program are largely responsible for the gains.
Its ads, which use the "it doesn't take a genius to do your taxes" tagline, are aimed at convincing reluctant taxpayers they don't need to hire pricey accountants or tax consultants to fill out their tax returns. The company even brings in PHDs and Nobel Laureates to demonstrate the point in its clever ads.
And Intuit is quick to respond to critics.
When professional tax preparers launched ads asking if people wanted to "talk to a box" if they had questions, Intuit responded in 2012 by offering TurboTax customers free one-on-one phone access to tax professionals, including CPAs, to answer questions. (Of course, the company doesn't mention that it often requires patience - sometimes in excess of an hour on hold - to speak to a CPA).
In 2015, the company launched its "Absolutely Zero" campaign in hopes of undercutting smaller and cheaper online rivals and luring customers away from H&R Block's retail locations. The program allows Americans to file both their federal and state tax returns for free using the TurboTax Federal Free Edition. Of course, the program only handles simple straightforward returns for customers who use the 1040A and 1040EZ forms. Anything more complicated still costs money. The company extended the program this year and even recruited actor Anthony Hopkins to promote it in a Super Bowl TV commercial last month.
The company is betting that if it can get customers to try free software at the basic level, they'll be willing to pay up when they need software for more complicated tax filings in the future. It also believes new TurboTax customers could fuel bigger sales in its QuickBooks accounting software business.
Luria speculates that low-cost providers, such as TaxAct, FreeTaxUSA and TaxSlayer, are being hit the hardest by Intuit's Absolutely Zero program. "You can't price any cheaper than free, and once Intuit went to free it really didn't make sense to use the other [lesser-known] products," said Luria. He estimates TurboTax holds about a 60% share of the digital tax preparation market.
"We're in the third year of a multi-year journey and are beginning to see a sea change in how Americans prepare their taxes," said Sasan Goodarzi, executive vice president and general manager of Intuit's Consumer Tax Group, in the company's recent earnings release.
So far, the strategy seems to be working. In its fiscal second quarter that ended on January 31, 2016, Intuit's revenue rose 23% to $923 million from $749 million a year ago - exceeding analysts' expectations. It also posted earnings of $0.09 a share, reversing a loss of $0.23 a share during the same period a year earlier.
However, the stock sold off after the company failed to boost projections for the full fiscal year as analysts had expected.
"The lack of guidance raise was a bit disappointing, especially given the strong performance in the quarter," wrote Raimo Lenschow, a managing director at Barclays, in a note.
Shares had been up as much as 4.7% in 2016, but tumbled Friday after the company's earnings release. The shares are currently flat year-to-date - which still far outpaces the S&P 500, which is down 4.7%, and Nasdaq, which is off 8.3% in 2016.
At least three analysts raised their 12-month price targets on Intuit's stock: Wedbush's Luria lifted his price target to $100 from $90, Barclays managing director Raimo Lenschow boosted his target to $109 from $107, and Oppenheimer's Scott Schneeberger raised his price even higher to $111 from $108. Intuit's shares recently traded at $96.64.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held TK positions in the stocks mentioned.