Alphabet: YouTube advertising miss presses pause on stock comeback  

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Alphabet was on its way to becoming a meme stock earlier this year. Retail investors suddenly noticed that Google’s parent company traded on a lower earnings multiple than peers while reporting higher revenue growth. For the world’s top search engine with $67bn in annual free cash flow this seemed conservative.

All of that remains true. Alphabet trades on an EV/ebitda multiple of around 15 times — lower than the Nasdaq average. Revenue growth this year is forecast to exceed Meta, Amazon and Apple. But a slowdown in digital advertising growth in the first quarter is enough to temper excitement.

The company points to a tough comparison with the previous year’s post-lockdown rebound, which is fair. Rising interest rates and the war in Ukraine explain caution too. Snap pointed to the same factors last week.

The question is whether Alphabet has longer-term problems. Across the company’s portfolio some of the most interesting parts of the business are not yet broken out. App store revenue, a sore spot for antitrust campaigners, is rolled into “Services”. That means it is not possible to see the exact impact of fee cuts.

Advertising dips are more transparent. Google uses its own search data to sell adverts, so it is better protected from Apple’s privacy change than Snap and Meta, which need personal data for targeted advertising. But revenue at YouTube, where 2bn people log in to watch videos every month, rose just 14 per cent in the last quarter. That is down from 25 per cent the previous quarter as a result of personalised direct advertising slowing down.

Like Meta, YouTube is also contending with younger internet users choosing TikTok’s quick-fire short videos over older platforms. Advertising on YouTube’s TikTok clone Shorts is still being tested.

Chief financial officer Ruth Porat has set in motion another gigantic share buyback scheme. At $70bn it exceeds last year’s free cash flow. Alphabet has a cash and marketable securities balance of $134bn and about $15bn in long-term debt, so it is in no danger of running dry. But Big Tech is supposed to have big ideas, not just big buybacks.

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