Tech

Shira Ovide is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering technology. She previously was a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

I'm going to quiz you on two companies. One of them makes complex automobiles. The other makes Adam Sandler movies. Which one would you guess is bleeding more cash in pursuit of its mission?

Pencils down. The answer is Adam Sandler's patron, Netflix Inc. It had negative free cash flow of $2.1 billion in the 12 months ended June 30 and is on the hook to pay more than $13 billion in the next three years for its entertainment programming.  Netflix's Bay Area neighbor, the notorious cash bonfire Tesla, had negative $1.6 billion of free cash flow in the year ended March 31, according to Bloomberg data. 

Cars Versus Adam Sandler
Netflix burns more cash than Tesla
Sources: Bloomberg and Netflix
Note: Tesla free cash flow is for the 12 months ended March 31, and for Netflix it is the period ended June 30.

Both companies have ambitious growth plans and have the support of stockholders to bleed cash for a while to pursue what could be huge payoffs. Netflix is splurging on movies and TV series to offer something unique to its web video subscribers, and it is on the hunt to make Netflix popular nearly everywhere in the world.

This two-pronged strategy could pay off, but it is messy in the meantime. Netflix hasn't had positive free cash flow -- that's cash from operations minus capital expenditures -- for three years. And the company repeated in a letter to investors on Monday that it expects to have negative free cash flow "for many years."

None of this is news to Netflix observers. The company has to pay cash upfront to produce its own programming like those Adam Sandler comedies. Unlike at Tesla, though, where its cash burn has become a closely watched metric, Netflix stock and bond owners appear unperturbed about its cash-burning ways. They should be paying closer attention.

Netflix shares rose sharply after hours on Monday after the company reported it signed up more subscribers than expected in the second quarter. Netflix absolutely needs to keep adding customers so it can pay for all that programming. More on this in a moment. 

Cash Bonfire
Netflix's free cash flow has turned negative in the last three years as the company spends on new programming and international expansion
Source: Bloomberg
Note: Free cash flow is cash from operations minus capital expenditures.

Netflix has said that its ratio of debt to stock market value is lower than that of other media companies. That's true, but this figure doesn't account for the billions of dollars in contractual payments Netflix has agreed to make, largely for its own programming.

Netflix is on the hook for $15.7 billion in coming years, nearly all within three years. About half of that amount doesn't appear on Netflix's balance sheet and therefore isn't captured in traditional metrics used to calculate debt burdens. The company has disclosed it believes this figure is likely to go up by $3 billion to $5 billion within three years to account for "unknown future titles." The company on Monday provided a new disclosure that breaks down how it accounts for its programming obligations.

It's not unusual for entertainment companies to owe significant sums for programming that doesn't all show up on balance sheets. For example, Walt Disney has disclosed it owes $51 billion for programming, nearly all for the rights to televise sports such as National Football League games.

Where Disney diverges from Netflix is the Mouse House generates more than $8 billion of free cash each year, which should more than cover these payments. Netflix needs to raise more cash. Netflix has sold bonds twice since the fall, largely to finance its programming costs, and will most likely borrow more. "We think it's wise to continue to invest," Netflix told investors Monday. 

Debt investors are usually a nervous bunch, but they're not worried about Netflix's cash position. The bonds Netflix sold last fall offer about 2 percentage points lower yield than bonds sold by comparably rated companies, according to Bloomberg and Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data.

No One Cares
Even though Netflix is burning cash, its bond investors are accepting relatively low yields
Source: Bloomberg, Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data

The benefit of Netflix's programming binge is the more buzzy series and movies Netflix creates the more it lures people to sign up for entertainment they can't watch anywhere else. And the more subscribers Netflix lands, the richer the financial payoffs the company gets from the fixed costs of its own programming. 

That's why Netflix's shares react to any news about subscriber gains -- no matter that Netflix doesn't believe this is an important metric. Netflix needs to add more customers for its costly strategy to pan out.

No one will remember a temporary cash fire if Netflix becomes a new generation global media titan and profits rain for years to come. In the meantime, investors shouldn't shrug off the costs of Netflix's ambitions. 

-- Lisa Abramowicz contributed to this column.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. This figure is from a Netflix securities filing as of March 31.  The company hasn't released an updated figure yet.

To contact the author of this story:
Shira Ovide in New York at sovide@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Daniel Niemi at dniemi1@bloomberg.net