After Strong Quarter, Groupon Starts Looking Like a Deal Again

Even though Groupon continues to carry the warning that its financial processes are weak, a handful of analysts upgraded Groupon to a buy rating today and investors sent the stock soaring after the company released impressive first-quarter results yesterday.

Apparently the final reassurance analysts and investors were looking for was that the company is indeed still growing.

Despite taking several measures over the past couple of months in the wake of an awkward fourth-quarter earnings revision, Groupon has not been able to regain investor confidence and has watched its stock price slowly dwindle to half its IPO price of $20 a share.

Today, the company’s stock opened at $14.93 a share before settling at $12.17 at the close, up 3.7 percent.

At least two analysts were bullish on yesterday’s first-quarter results, upgrading Groupon’s stock to a buy.

Sterne Agee upgraded Groupon from neutral to a buy and set a price target of $20. In a note to investors, analysts Arvind Bhatia and Brett Strauser wrote that the strong first quarter “alleviated several concerns,” including Groupon’s ability to have operating leverage. An additional plus, they wrote, is that the stock is trading so far below its IPO price.

Likewise, Mark Mahaney from Citi wrote that “we’ll grab this deal,” and upgraded the stock to a buy with a $22 price target. Four factors drove his decision: 33 percent quarter-over-quarter revenue growth in North America, international margins turning positive for the first time, marketing spending declining for the fourth quarter in a row and the very low stock price.

As my colleague Ina Fried reported yesterday, Groupon’s first-quarter revenues topped the company’s prior forecast as well as analyst expectations, totaling $559.3 million during the period, compared with $295.5 million a year ago. Operating income was $39.6 million, including an expense of $28 million related to non-cash stock-based compensation.

The strong results helped overshadow the company’s previous follies, which included the financial revision in the fourth quarter due to higher than expected holiday returns and the disclosure that auditors had determined it had a material weakness in its financial processes.

In a conference call with analysts, Groupon’s CFO Jason Child, who is under fire over the gaffes, said: “There’s some specific tasks that we have implemented and are going to implement. We’ve certainly added some people, and have some more work there. We have 48 countries and so we do have accounting personnel and controllers in every single country.”

In addition, Groupon has taken several precautions over the past couple of months to ensure the mishaps won’t happen again.

For example, Groupon has hired Kal Raman to build out the company’s internal controls and processes as the SVP of Americas. He previously held executive roles at Amazon, eBay and Groupon also nominated two new members with accounting prowess to the board and has been working on its financial controls.

Child said that since being tripped by holiday returns, the company has implemented a more granular statistical model that maps returns on a weekly basis.

“From a process standpoint we are in good shape, and there’s some technology that is especially helpful with a company like ours,” he said. “We made a lot of progress this quarter, and will make a lot of progress next quarter, and hopefully in the next quarter or two, we’ve done all the steps necessary.”

Groupon’s auditors won’t review whether the company has rectified its financial processes until the end of the year, so even if the company moves faster the label will remain.

In a recent letter to shareholders, Groupon’s CEO Andrew Mason said he did not have regrets on moving too fast.

“Although there are risks in moving too fast, companies often don’t survive long enough to apologize for moving too slow,” Mason writes. “Perhaps more importantly, by moving quickly, we reached a scale that has helped us solidify our market leadership, and accumulated data that is enabling our future and helping us continuously improve the experience of our customers.”

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