No merry Christmas for eBay

By Yi-Wyn Yen

Santa Claus won’t be coming to eBay this year. The online auction giant reported quarterly sales and profits late Wednesday that met expectations, but gave such a dismal outlook for the holiday season that one analyst suggested Christmas had been cancelled.

eBay reported third-quarter profits of 46 cents a share, or 12% higher than the same period a year ago. Revenues came to $2.12 billion, up $229 million, or 19%, from last year thanks to advertising sales and its PayPal payment service.

But any delight that investors found in eBay’s numbers was quickly doused when eBay (EBAY) delivered some Scrooge-like numbers for the current quarter. Executives noted a sharp spending decline starting in mid-August for both high-priced items like cars and for smaller ones like concert tickets, which are sold through its StubHub subsidiary. The San Jose-based company expects its revenues to decline by 4% in the fourth quarter from the same period a year ago.

eBay also cut revenues for the fourth quarter to $2.02 billion to $2.17 billion. That would make the current quarter, typically the strongest because of holiday spending, eBay’s weakest of the year. Wall Street, which had been warned by eBay last week of slowdown, was expecting revenues of $2.44 billion. eBay now predicts earnings of 39 cents to 41 cents per share for the current quarter, well below Street estimates of 47 cents.

Investors signaled their disappointment, sending eBay shares down 3.5% in after-market trading. Shares are down 53% so far this year.

“Your guidance indicates there is no Christmas,” said Goldman Sachs analyst James Mitchell during the company’s post-earnings conference call with analysts.

eBay CEO John Donahoe tried to convince investors that the impact of a severe economic slowdown was beyond eBay’s control. Donahoe used the phrase “challenging and uncertain times” multiple times during the call. eBay CFO Bob Swan said a stronger U.S. dollar will cut into international revenue and a consumer spending decline will make “growth deceleration that much tougher.”

Swan presented slides to investors that showed spending on the auction site mirroring consumer spending trends offline.

However, some analysts were skeptical that eBay’s problems could be blamed primarily on sagging retail spending. “eBay’s model has been probably hit harder than the average e-commerce company would be,” said Jeffrey Lindsay, Sanford Bernstein’s Internet analyst. “This is a fairly poor performance, but it looks like it’s going to get worse with no improvement any time soon.”

For the first time ever, eBay’s marketplace business, its main revenue driver, fell 1% to $14.3 billion from a year ago. The decline in eBay’s transactions are not a healthy sign of the company’s growth prospects.

A steady decline in eBay’s traffic for the past two years has prompted the company to spend the year trimming costs and restructuring its auction model. eBay recently announced plans to cut 1,000 jobs, or about 10%, of its global workforce. The company is also focusing on items that consumers can buy immediately and offering standardized shipping rates to better compete with Amazon (AMZN), which has been gaining popularity with buyers and sellers.

Donahoe said the company is seeing improvements with its turnaround plan, citing a 3% increase in users for the third quarter. Still, that hasn’t translated into more eBay users buying on the site.

Said Lindsay: “Santa Claus is coming for Christmas, but he’s coming from Seattle – not San Jose.”

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