Investors in Internet titans such as Google ( GOOG), Yahoo! ( YAHOO) and eBay ( EBAY) should remember the words of that unheralded stock market prognosticator from Broadway's Annie. Like the fictional orphan, Wall Street analysts are telling investors that tomorrow is only a day away for the Internet behemoths, despite widely expected sales slowdowns. The third quarter is the weakest for the Internet companies because during the summer, people would rather surf on the ocean than the Web. But while third-quarter numbers may be lukewarm, the fourth-quarter results are bound to show improvement, analysts say. Of course, there's plenty of good news on the Web. Internet advertising revenue rose 26% in the first six months of the year to $5.8 billion, as advertisers continue to shift their spending from traditional media online, according to the Internet Advertising Bureau. The number of people using the Web for search queries also is continuing to rise. About the only potential rain on the parade for these companies is consumer sentiment, which fell for a third month in September, according to the University of Michigan's survey. "Solid third-quarter results combined with a positive fourth-quarter outlook for both new media and select e-commerce companies should bode well for strong year-end stock performance," wrote Goldman Sachs analyst Anthony Noto in a note to clients on Oct. 11. "We see 15%-25% share-price appreciation potential for our top-rated companies -- eBay, Google and Yahoo! -- prior to any additional upward estimate revisions." He rates all the stocks outperform. So far this year, though, the big Net stocks have been out of favor with investors. Yahoo! shares have fallen 12% and eBay is down 32%. InterActiveCorp ( IACI) has dropped 18% while Amazon.com ( AMZN) is down 2%, in line with the broader S&P 500 index. Google has been the exception, gaining 52%.
"Multiples in general have come down a bit for all of these companies," says Darren Chervitz, director of research at Jacob Asset Management in New York, which owns shares of Internet companies including Google, Yahoo! and TheStreet.com ( TSCM), publisher of this Web site. "Google has been somewhat immune to that because its multiple was lower than eBay and Yahoo! for a while. The market has corrected that." Indeed, the Internet companies are maturing. Yahoo! and Google continue to add new features in their continuing battle for Web supremacy. They are also both in the hunt to buy a minority interest in Time Warner's ( TWX) America Online unit, according to sources familiar with the situation. The companies, along with Comcast ( CMCSA) and Microsoft ( MSFT), are mainly interested in AOL's content, not its eroding dial-up Net access business. The urge to expand comes as the companies confront a decided slowdown in growth. Sales at eBay are expected to rise 34% in the quarter to $1.08 billion, according to Thomson Financial. Should eBay match that figure, it would mark the slowest-ever quarterly sales growth at the San Jose, Calif., company.Similarly, Yahoo!'s sales are expected to rise 1% this quarter to $918 million, its worst performance since at least 2001. Analysts are predicting Google's sales at $939.2 million, up 17% from a year earlier, Thomson Financial says. This would be the first quarter that Google's sales haven't jumped more than 90% in its short history as a public company. Revenue at Amazon.com should rise 26% to $1.8 billion, its smallest third-quarter gain since 2002. "Yahoo! expectations are steady state and good growth, but not to the moon like it was a year and a half ago," said Jane Snorek, technology analyst at US Bancorp Asset Management, which owns Yahoo! and Google's shares among its $122 billion in assets under management, in an interview. Yahoo! is due to post earnings after the market closes Tuesday. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Financial expect a 14-cent profit.
Google, whose net income has at least doubled in every quarter its reported since going public, is expected to post earnings per share of $1.36, up from 70 cents a year earlier, according to Thomson Financial. That's a mere 94% increase, compared with a 133% gain in the second quarter. Results are expected to be hurt by the company's hiring binge. Merrill Lynch's Lauren Rich Fine estimates that the Mountain View, Calif.-based company hired 700 people in the quarter, a pace that won't be slowing down. The company employed 4,183 as of June 30. It is scheduled to report earnings on Thursday. For eBay, questions linger about its just-completed $2.52 billion acquisition of online phone services provider Skype Technologies. Some investors have complained that the San Jose, Calif., company paid too much for Skype, which eBay expects will help encourage additional sales for services by allowing buyers and sellers to speak over the phone. "It's still on the expensive side," said Chuck Jones, an analyst at Atlantic Trust Stein Roe, which owns eBay shares among its $15 billion in assets under management and supports the acquisition. "One of the big unknowns is how much that makes it easier for buyers to be able to talk to sellers and get information on a timely basis." eBay is scheduled to report earnings on Wednesday. Analysts are forecasting earnings per share of 20 cents, compared with 14 cents a year earlier. The San Jose, Calif., company is scheduled to report earnings Oct. 19. eBay may report better-than-expected revenue in the quarter, bolstered by gains in fees and increases in the number of auctions that lead to sales, Merrill Lynch analyst Justin Post said in an Oct. 6 note. He rates eBay buy.
Seattle-based Amazon.com should report earnings per share of 10 cents compared with 17 cents a year earlier in its Oct. 25 earnings report. Results may be hurt at the world's largest online retailer by higher costs for fuel and for shipments of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, according to Goldman Sachs' Noto. He rates Amazon shares in line. "We prefer eBay, Google and Yahoo! to Amazon, given that all three should generate faster 2006 revenue growth (average of 35% vs. Amazon at 20%), better operating margins (average of 43% vs. 7%) and greater appreciation potential to our implied values (average of about 15% to 20%) but trade at similar multiples," he wrote in a note. InterActiveCorp CEO Barry Diller is encouraging investors to be patient with his company, according to an interview with Bloomberg News. He also defended his company's spinoff of its Expedia ( EXPE) travel unit to make the company easier to value. Sales at New York-based Interactive will be little changed in the quarter at $1.5 billion, while earnings per share will be 26 cents, according to Thomson Financial.