Investors will get a chance this week to survey Barry Diller's radically remade online-services landscape. When the New York wheeler-dealer moved earlier this year to split up his Internet assets, he argued that the move would afford a better view of his businesses, which range from dating Web sites to the Home Shopping Network. This week, Wall Street gets its first opportunity to judge if they like what they see from IAC/InterActiveCorp ( IACI) and Expedia ( EXPE). IAC, parent of Web sites such as LendingTree and TicketMaster, is due to report early Tuesday. Analysts expect it to make 26 cents a share on revenue of $1.5 billion, according to Thomson Financial. Expedia, set to report Thursday, is expected to earn 31 cents a share on sales of $571 million. Diller has built up an Internet empire through acquisitions including July's $1.9 billion purchase of the search engine Ask Jeeves. He earns plaudits from investors such as Larry Haverty of Gabelli Asset Management for keeping the management teams of his acquired companies intact. But that doesn't mean the IAC story has gotten much simpler. "Even after the splitoff, it remains a complicated company," says Haverty, whose firm owns IAC shares among its $28 billion in assets under management, in an interview. Still, he adds, "This is a much better collection of assets than the market gives it credit for." For some investors such as Darren Chervitz, the director of research for Jacob Asset Management, the diversity of IAC's businesses is one of the company's weaknesses, particularly following the Expedia spinoff. His firm owns both companies and shares of TheStreet.com ( TSCM), publisher of this Web site. "To me, I am looking at a retail company with a bunch of disparate properties, some of which are older, more mature business, some of which are newer, more exciting ones," he said. "I don't see how that one transaction did anything to simplify the story. If anything, it made IACI a less attractive investment vehicle."
Investors are growing increasingly skeptical on the Internet sector after disappointing earnings from companies including Amazon ( AMZN) and eBay ( EBAY). IAC and Expedia also are facing heightened competition from rivals including Google ( GOOG) and Yahoo! ( YHOO), as well as the economic worries that were heightened by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Indeed, consumer sentiment remains weak amid expectations that people will defer spending on discretionary spending on holiday gifts as they face higher prices for gasoline and home heating. "Right now, the economic environment is somewhat unstable, particularly as it relates to the consumer," said Scott Devitt, an analyst with Legg Mason Wood Walker who has buy ratings on both IAC and Expedia and doesn't own the shares, in an interview. His sentiments were echoed by Chervitz, who said, "You have a Fed continuing to raise interest rates. You have the housing market settling down. I think you have a fairly indebted consumer. You put all of those things together, and I would worry about the health of the holiday season." Last year, online holiday spending reached an all-time high of $23.2 billion, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. The firm expects "another strong online shopping season in 2005, if online retailers can meet the demands of an increasingly discriminating online clientele," according to a statement it issued Friday. Though a tiny fraction of total retail sales, Web-based sales are growing at a faster rate than those in traditional retailers. New York-based IAC will get about $751 million of its revenue in the third quarter from its retailing business, with $458 million coming from services such as ticketing and $97.5 million from media and entertainment, according to J.P. Morgan analyst Imran Khan, who rates the shares neutral. Suburban Seattle-based Expedia may report gross bookings and revenue below his estimates of $3.98 billion and $572.4 million, respectively, because of the hurricanes and the terrorist attacks in London, Khan said.