Strong Earnings Won’t Stop Coinbase’s Slump

Coinbase is expected to report earnings on May 13, 2021 for the first time since its direct listing in mid-April. At its current price of $293/share, the stock’s valuation implies the company will exceed the combined revenue of Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) and Nasdaq (NDAQ). Consequently, I do not expect the company to report any news from 1Q21 that could justify owning shares at current levels. Instead, investors should expect the stock to continue to underperform. Shares could fall to $100 or less as it becomes clear the firm is unlikely to meet the future profit growth expectations baked into the stock price.

Coinbase is not likely to fulfill the profit expectations baked into the stock’s current valuation of $58 billion due to rising competition in the cryptocurrency trading space, which should reduce the company’s market share and pricing power. 

With more competition expected in the cryptocurrency trading space, I expect Coinbase’s revenues and profits to taper off, which means the company will likely not be able to justify a valuation higher than $100 per share.

Coinbase shares are already down over 30% from their mid-April intraday high of $429 and I believe the stock has more downside risk ahead.

Expecting Record Revenue Growth in 1Q21 Earnings

Coinbase’s revenue surged in 2020 and preliminary results reported in early April indicate even faster growth in 1Q21. Accordingly, I expect strong top-line and bottom-line performance from Coinbase this quarter. If Coinbase maintained its 2020 trading fee as a percent of volume of 0.46% throughout the first quarter, then I’d expect transaction revenue of ~$1.5 billion in 1Q21. The firm has already announced it expects total revenue in 1Q21 to be ~$1.8 billion. For reference, Coinbase’s total revenue in all of 2020 was $1.3 billion.

Valuation Remains Too High Even After Underperformance

Even with a huge year-over-year increase in revenue, earnings, and verified users, I expect the stock will continue to slump (already down 23% from its opening price) over the long term. No earnings report, in my opinion, will be strong enough to convince investors the company will exceed the extraordinary expectations for profits already baked into the current price. See details in the valuation section below.

Figure 1: COIN’s Performance Is a Sign of Things to Come

Returns are calculated with opening prices for 4/14/21 and market close prices for all other dates.

Damned If You, Damned if You Don’t: Strong Results Will Attract More Competition

Coinbase will likely not be able to sustain blowout earnings going forward as competition enters the market. The crypto markets are very young, and I expect many more companies to compete for the profits Coinbase enjoys today. The race to the zero phenomenon that took place in late 2019 with stock trading fees will likely make its way to crypto markets, and Coinbase’s record earnings will only accelerate that process.

The stronger Coinbase’s earnings are now, the more attractive this fast-growing market looks to larger competitors with greater resources. PayPal (PYPL) and Square (SQ) already charge lower fees than Coinbase, and Robinhood extends its customary zero commission service to cryptocurrencies as well. Large retail broker Charles Schwab (SCHW), who actively participated in the stock trading fee race to zero, is also eying entry into the cryptocurrency space as it gets, “more regulatory clarity.”

Coinbase Is Priced to Be the Largest Exchange in the World

I use my reverse discounted cash flow (DCF) model to illustrate the lofty expectations for future cash flows implied by Coinbase’s valuation. See Figure 2.

In order to justify its current price, $293/share, Coinbase must:

  • maintain a 25% NOPAT margin (above Nasdaq’s 19% but below Intercontinental Exchanges’ 31% in 2020) and
  • grow revenue by 338% (equal to Mizuho Securities’ Dan Dolev’s estimate) in 2021 and
  • grow revenue by 21% compounded annually from 2022 to 2027

In this scenario, Coinbase grows revenue by 46% (well above Nasdaq’s highest seven-year revenue CAGR [2004-2011] of 30%) compounded annually for the next seven years. Coinbase would earn $17.7 billion in revenue by 2027, which is 1.3x Intercontinental Exchange and Nasdaq’s combined 2020 revenue, 38% of the TTM revenue of the 11 top Financial & Commodity Market Operators[1], and 1.5x Charles Schwab’s (SCHW) 2020 revenue. See the math behind this reverse DCF scenario.

Figure 2 compares the firm’s implied future revenue in this scenario to its historical revenue as well as Charles Schwab’s 2020 revenue and the combined 2020 revenues of Intercontinental Exchange and Nasdaq.

65%+ Downside if Coinbase Is Not the Largest Exchange in the World

I review an additional DCF scenario to highlight the downside risk should Coinbase see if its profitability aligns with traditional brokerages as competition enters the market and cryptocurrency trading becomes a more commoditized business.

If I assume Coinbase’s:

  • NOPAT margin falls to 23% (market-cap-weighted average of 18 Investment Banking & Brokerage Services firms under coverage, compared to 25% in 2020) and
  • revenue grows by 30% compounded annually for the next seven years (Nasdaq’s greatest seven-year revenue CAGR), then

COIN is worth just $104/share today – a 61% downside to the expected valuation. See the math behind this reverse DCF scenario. However, matching Nasdaq’s fastest seven-year revenue CAGR could prove too optimistic given the volatile nature and niche status of the cryptocurrency market. If cryptocurrency fails to break through on a more mainstream level, as alluded to in Coinbase’s “average MTU possible scenarios” and trading volumes remain dwarfed by stock trading, Coinbase’s growth story would end and the stock would drop precipitously. The company could go bankrupt.

Each of the above scenarios also assumes Coinbase’s working capital and fixed assets increase YoY at a rate equal to 10% of revenue. This growth in invested capital is just under half the YoY change in invested capital as a percent of revenue in 2020.

Figure 2: COIN Valuation Implies Greater Revenue Than ICE & NDAQ Combined

If Coinbase maintained its fees at 0.46% of trading volume (as outlined above), this DCF scenario implies that trading volume on Coinbase’s platform would be $3.1 trillion by 2027, which would equal 68% of the total cryptocurrency trading volume in 2020.

A Deep Dive on Coinbase’s Fundamentals

This rest of this report, taken and updated from my report published on April 12, 2021, uses more reliable fundamental data and aims to help investors sort through Coinbase’s financial filings to understand the fundamentals.

Cryptocurrency Market Remains Niche Despite Recent Headlines

In its S-1, Coinbase notes “crypto has the potential to be as revolutionary and widely adopted as the internet.” While such a statement can lead to lofty valuations based on a “growth story”, the reality is the cryptocurrency market remains far from “mainstream”.

According to data analytics firm CivicScience, 66% of U.S. adults are “not interested in” crypto and 18% have “never heard of it.” Similarly, CivicScience finds that while the number of people investing in cryptocurrencies is rising quickly, it still remains low at just 9% of U.S. adults. For reference, Pew Research Center estimates 90% of U.S. adults used the internet in 2019.

A Mature Market Could Crush Profitability by 98%

As a leading cryptocurrency exchange and brokerage firm in a nascent market, Coinbase charges a large spread on each trade and a trading fee (which is the greater of a flat fee or a variable percentage fee based on region, product feature, and payment type)- both of which are unsustainably high.

In 2020, Coinbase collected ~0.57% of every transaction in fees, which totaled $1.1 billion in trading revenue on $193 billion in trading volume. In total, these trading fees made up 86% of revenue in 2020. If I assume a similar breakdown of Coinbase’s preliminary $1.8 billion in total revenue in 1Q21, trading fees would equal ~$1.5 billion on $335 billion in trading volume, or ~0.46% of every transaction.

As the cryptocurrency market matures and more firms inevitably pursue Coinbase’s high margins, the firm’s competitive position will inevitably deteriorate. For example, if stock trading fees are any indicator for crypto trading fees, we should expect them to quickly go lower if not to zero. Competitors such as Gemini, Bitstamp, Kraken, Binance, and others will likely offer lower or zero trading fees as a strategy to take market share, which would start the same “race to the bottom” that we saw with stock trading fees in late 2019. Similarly, if traditional brokerages begin offering the ability to trade cryptocurrencies, they will most certainly cut down on the unnaturally wide spreads in the immature cryptocurrency market.

For example, if Coinbase’s revenue share of trading volume fell to 0.01%, equal to traditional stock exchanges, it’s estimated 1Q21 transaction revenue would have been just $35 million, instead of an estimated $1.5 billion.

To get a sense of just how untenable Coinbase’s competitive position is, Coinbase’s estimated transaction revenue as a percent of trading volume in 1Q21 is 46 times higher than Intercontinental Exchange, which runs the New York Stock Exchange (among others) and Nasdaq Inc., which runs the Nasdaq. The likelihood of Coinbase maintaining such high fees is very low in a mature market. See Figure 3.

Figure 3: Coinbase Transaction Revenue Vs. Traditional Exchanges

*Estimated based on average daily trading volume of $100 billion as reported by Cboe Global Markets.

** Estimated as 86% of Coinbase’s 1Q21 total revenue, which equals Coinbase’s transaction revenue as a percent of total revenue in 2020***ICE and NDAQ transaction revenues equals each firm’s cash equity trading revenues

Coinbase also recognizes that future profitability could fall when management notes it will “meaningfully increase investment in sales and marketing” – likely to defend its market position from rising competition. In its 1Q21 update, the company guided for sales and marketing expenses to be between 12-15% of net revenue in 2021, which is a significant increase from 5% of net revenue in 2020. Rising expenses as a percent of revenue would hurt margins going forward while the firm’s valuation implies margins will hold steady (see details below).

Current Profits Are Drop In the Bucket Compared to Expectations

Coinbase stands out against recent IPOs due to the fact it actually generates a profit. Coinbase grew revenue by 139% year-over-year in 2020, and Core Earnings improved from -$17 million to $317 million over the same time. In 1Q21, revenue grew more than 9x year-over-year (YoY). However, such profit growth was not enough to stop the stock price slump noted in Figure 1.

Figure 4: Coinbase’s Revenue & Core Earnings: 2019-2020

These results are impressive, and Coinbase may be a good company, but COIN, even at $100/share, is not a good stock as I show above.

Not Without Warning Flags

Despite a profitable business, investors should be aware that investing in Coinbase is not absent some notable red flags beyond its lofty valuation.

Public Shareholders Have No Rights. A risk of investing in Coinbase, as with many recent IPOs, is the fact that that shares provide little to no say over corporate governance.

Coinbase went public with two separate share classes, each with different voting rights. Coinbase’s direct listing is for Class A shares, with one vote per share. Class B shares provide 20 votes per share and are held by company executives and early investors. For instance, Co-founder and CEO Brian Armstrong holds 22% of the voting power, and all executives and directors collectively hold 54% of the voting power. Notable investor Marc Andreessen owns 14% of the voting power in the firm through Andreesen Horowitz. In the end, all public investors combined can expect to gain no more than ~17% of voting power after rewarding the company with a stupendous valuation.

Concentration Risk Is Large

Investors in Coinbase must be aware that the firm’s heavy reliance on Bitcoin and Ethereum create unique concentration risks. In 2020, Bitcoin and Ethereum accounted for 56% of Coinbase’s trading volume and an equal percentage of transaction revenue. Should demand for these two crypto currencies decline without an offsetting increase in new cryptocurrencies, Coinbase could see significant cuts to its trading volume and transaction revenue.

Non-GAAP EBITDA Overstates Profitability

While often a favorite of unprofitable companies, Coinbase still presents investors with an overstated picture of its fundamentals through its use of adjusted EBITDA. Adjusted EBITDA allows management significant leeway in excluding costs in its calculation. For example, Coinbase’s adjusted EBITDA calculation removes stock-based compensation expense, acquisition related expenses, and more.

Coinbase’s adjusted EBITDA in 2020 removes $205 million (16% of revenue) in expenses including $70 million in stock-based compensation expense. After removing these items, Coinbase reports adjusted EBITDA of $527 million in 2020. Meanwhile, economic earnings, the true cash flows of the business, are much lower at $285 million.

While Coinbase’s adjusted EBITDA follows the same trend in economic earnings over the past two years, investors need to be aware that there is always a risk that adjusted EBITDA could be used to manipulate earnings going forward.

Emerging Growth Company Designation Means Less Transparency

Coinbase ceased to be an Emerging Growth Company as of December 31, 2020. However, because it filed its draft registration statement to the SEC prior to this date, it is still able to take advantage of the reduced disclosure requirements available to Emerging Growth Companies. I’ve outlined these reduced disclosure requirements here. This designation means reduced transparency for investors, which only increases the risk of investing in Coinbase.

Critical Details Found in Financial Filings by My Firm’s Robo-Analyst Technology

Below are specifics on the adjustments I make based on Robo-Analyst findings in Coinbase’s S-1:

Income Statement: I made $31 million of adjustments, with a net effect of removing $1 million in non-operating income (<1% of revenue). You can see all the adjustments made to Coinbase’s income statement here.

Balance Sheet: I made $1.5 billion of adjustments to calculate invested capital with a net decrease of $968 million. The most notable adjustment was $1.1 billion in excess cash. This adjustment represented 67% of reported net assets. You can see all the adjustments made to Coinbase’s balance sheet here.

Valuation: I made $12.9 billion of adjustments with a net effect of decreasing shareholder value by $10.8 billion. The largest adjustment to shareholder value was $11.5 billion in outstanding employee stock options. This adjustment represents 12% of Coinbase’ expected market cap. See all adjustments to Coinbase’s valuation here.

Disclosure: David Trainer, Kyle Guske II, and Matt Shuler receive no compensation to write about any specific stock, style, or theme.

[1] Firms in this group include Cboe Global Markets (CBOE), CME Group (CME), Deutsche Boerse AG (DBOEF), Fidelity National Information Services (FIS), GreenSky (GSKY), Interactive Brokers Group (IBKR), Intercontinental Exchange (ICE), MarketAxess Holdings (MKTX), Nasdaq Inc. (NDAQ), Tradeweb Markets (TW), and Virtu Financial (VIRT).