eBay Gets a Spanking

Shares dip as traders question the strength of the primary business.
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(EBAY) - Get Report

says it's so much more than an auction company.

But Wall Street doesn't seem to be buying it.

Shares of eBay fell 2.2% to $33.29 in recent trading on Thursday following the company's second-quarter earnings announcement on Wednesday. The company beat analysts' expectations by 2 cents, thanks in part to favorable tax rates and a weak U.S. dollar, and raised guidance for the rest of the year.

But weak listings growth in the company's core auction business seemed to take center stage.

Growth in eBay's marketplace global gross merchandise volume (GMV) was only 9% once currency adjustments were taken into account, Pacific Crest Securities analyst Steve Weinstein wrote in a research note on Thursday. That's a slowdown from the 10% eBay racked up in the first quarter.

"Even though eBay has developed other revenue streams that are not tied to GMV, we still consider GMV growth to be the best indictor of the health of the business and long-term growth potential," he wrote.

eBay management, meanwhile, did its best to position the company as much more than just the auction business it started out as a dozen years ago. Since that time, the company bought PayPal and Skype, while also pushing into new arenas like classifieds, CEO Meg Whitman said.

But instead of pursuing a haphazard expansion in search of growth, as critics of eBay have contended, Whitman said the company's moves are tied together by an overarching theme.

"We're united as one company and truly dedicated to what we call social commerce," Whitman said. "Social commerce is a powerful combination of commerce, communication and community that enhances traditional buying and selling. As a leader in this area for so many years, eBay has a unique opportunity and a responsibility to dissolve the barriers of time, distance and complexity for our community."

The reality away from all the high-minded rhetoric, of course, couldn't be more different. eBay's steadily jacked fees on its community of sellers, alienating many and driving them off the platform while squeezing those that remain.

And the classifieds business the company has now targeted as its next big growth opportunity will likely come at the expense of Craigslist, the popular site in which eBay owns a 25% stake -- and that is famous for actually letting considerations of community take a backseat to profit.

Still, even a cynical take on eBay's motives can paint a healthier scenario for eBay than bears care to admit. Driving some sellers from the platform can help clean up listings, which eBay had set out to do. And the rise in the average selling price of items suggests that some of the changes that eBay wanted to make are working.

The push into the U.S. classified business through the launch of Kijiji, meanwhile, finally provides the company with a large market to push into that takes advantage of its unique skills. A UBS report said it believes that the local commerce market into which eBay is moving could in time be as big as the company's core auction market.

And Whitman said that eBay can grow Kijiji with minimal marketing spending, thanks to its experience abroad and expertise in search engine marketing.

Its moves may be less noble than the company admits. But from a business perspective, they may make sense nonetheless.

And the company isn't without its fans on Wall Street. "We are optimistic about forthcoming improvements at eBay.com, continuing growth from PayPal and Skype, and the potential of the Kijiji classifieds offering," S&P analyst Scott Kessler wrote in a research note Thursday, reiterating his $40 price target.

If others, too, start to see the company more than just an auction marketplace, shares could start to move higher again.