Netflix’s excuse for missed earnings is ridiculous

October 15, 2015, 7:09 PM UTC
Courtesy: Code Conference

Netflix reported its third-quarter earnings on Wednesday, and a key metric disappointed: new subscribers. The streaming giant failed to meet its own forecast by adding a net 880,000 domestic subscribers in the quarter, compared to the 1.15 million it had predicted. The stock, which had been a longtime high-flier, briefly fell 14% in after-hours trading because of the bad news and hit an October low of $95. On Thursday, it bounced back slightly to around $100 at the time of writing.

The company’s excuse for the disappointing subscriber number? The recent transition to chip-based credit and debit cards in the U.S.

That’s just silly. The move to more secure chip cards, also known as EMV, has been in the works for a long time. (Europe has had such cards for over a decade.) The specific deadline for the U.S. switch of Oct. 1 has been set for over a year. It has loomed—for merchants, for card issuers, for banks and for finance reporters—in big, bold-faced letters.

As part of the switch, fraud liability shifted to merchants. It’s complicated, but under the new rules, if a customer walks into a store with a chip card and the store hasn’t updated its point-of-sale equipment to accept chip cards, the merchant is liable for any fraud that occurs from using the card the old way, by swiping the magnetic stripe. Before, the issuing bank footed the cost for fraud. Merchants aren’t pleased about the potential liability, but they have known it was coming for a very long time.

On the customer side, people have been receiving the new chip-embedded cards from their banks for the past year. Many may not have even noticed, but that is by design. While the transition has been much-ballyhooed for merchants, with warnings and updates and new terminals being set up at stores all over, the idea was for the transition to feel seamless to consumers.

You may be asking yourself: How can Netflix (NFLX) use this excuse? What is the company even suggesting happened? In a video interview with tech news site Re/code about the missed earnings, reporter Peter Kafka pressed Netflix executives on that question. Netflix CFO David Wells offered this vague non-answer: “For us, as a recurring merchant, where we want to reduce the friction of renewal… it just means that there’s more noise introduced into that. And we think it’s a contributor… Certainly the transition to the chip cards is not helping, and that has to be a factor.”

The gist of Netflix’s logic is that because some customers’ card information changed when they received new cards, it disrupted Netflix renewals. That doesn’t hold water. Typically, when people receive their new chip card, the account number on the face of the card does not change, just the expiration date and security code. Many payment platforms like Visa (V) and MasterCard (MA) offer dedicated services for this exact scenario that automatically update customers’ new card information for businesses with auto-renewing memberships. Visa’s program, for example, is called Visa Account Updater—and Netflix uses that service.

Wells acknowledged in the Re/code interview, “It’s not consistently the case that people don’t have the same account number” once they get their new card.

A spokesperson for Netflix elaborated, arguing that even if the card numbers don’t change, the expiration dates and security codes change, and that adds up: “When you’re processing recurring payments for some 42 million people, this [changing card information] can have a discernible impact. So it’s an issue of scale. It’s not like we’re running the gym down the corner and just a couple of people had issues. We’re talking about 42 million people. Relative to the overall size of our U.S. subscriber base, it isn’t a big deal, but it was discernible, because of how big that base is.” Netflix would not give a number for how many subscribers were lost because of the change to chip cards.

An executive at one of the major credit card companies, who would only agree to be quoted anonymously, told Fortune, “Our teams here are surprised by the statement, and perplexed in trying to figure out what they’re talking about.” An executive at another credit card company, who also did not want to be quoted by name, said, “We’re not hearing this from any other merchants.” (Netflix has before offered logic that can appear perplexing; earlier this year, the company said it doesn’t offer downloads of movies because of the “complexity” of such a service.)

Michael Pachter, an influential tech and media analyst with Wedbush, told Reuters, “It’s just the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” And the National Retail Federation, which advocates for the entire retail industry in the U.S., says it hasn’t fielded complaints about customer card information, which adds to the strangeness of Netflix’s chosen excuse.

“We’ve been dealing with a broad range of EMV issues over the past few months,” says J. Craig Shearman, an NRF spokesperson. “We have heard nothing whatsoever from our member companies about the switch affecting sales.” He wouldn’t comment on Netflix specifically, but added, “Anybody who’s in the business has known about it and prepared. The closest thing we’ve heard to any concerns about sales—not so much from retailers as much as quote-unquote experts—was that maybe it will slow down lines a little bit until people get used to inserting their card instead of swiping. But we have not heard any reports on that either, none. And that wouldn’t be a factor online.”

When answering the question about chip cards, Netflix’s Wells also said, “We’re only part of the way through [the transition], so U.S. issuers are going to continue that in Q4.” In other words, it sounds like Netflix may use this half-baked excuse again if it disappoints next quarter.

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