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What Is Wrong With eBay?

Dana Blankenhorn
What Is Wrong With eBay?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- What can be wrong with eBay , a company whose stock has increased more than five-fold over the last five years?

Plenty, according to Carl Icahn. 

Icahn doesn't like how Skype was spun out and then drew a bigger bid from Microsoft . He doesn't like that the eBay board refuses to spin off PayPal, eBay's payments service. Icahn looks at a one-year gain for the stock of 7.2%, against a 60% gain for the Nasdaq as a whole, and goes "meh."

But perhaps Icahn should be more worried about eBay's slowing growth and relatively meager capital spending.

While Chinese Internet company Alibaba has used its base in e-commerce to build an estimated $100 billion in equity value over the last decade, eBay's growth has lagged. The company has missed the digital-goods opportunity and revenue growth has been slowing steadily since 2010.

Margins are healthy, with almost 18% of revenue showing up as net income in 2013, but that may be the biggest danger signal of all.

The fact is that e-commerce is growing rapidly, and it's a business that requires enormous capital investment. For eBay, capital spending was a relatively small $1.25 billion in 2013 and $1.26 billion in 2012. Overall revenue was $16.1 billion last year and $14 billion in 2012. 

An eBay spokesman pointed out that its $1.25 billion in capital expenditures last year represented 8% of revenue, while Amazon's $3.44 billion represented just 5% of revenue.

The company hasn't been a big player in Silicon Valley's acquisition spree, either.

Its biggest acquisition for 2013 was Braintree, a payment processor bought as a bolt-on to Paypal, for $800 million. The company also bought Decide, a price-forecasting company, and then shut it down. It bought Shutl, an English courier service, but that was also a relatively small deal.

While eBay is diddling, rival Amazon has been growing, and Alibaba has been preparing for a U.S. debut. There is nothing on eBay that competes with Amazon Prime, a membership program that costs $79 a year, and eBay is increasingly vulnerable to a new market entrant.

Icahn might also ask what eBay has done with its long list of acquisitions.

Has anyone heard from Stumbleupon, the browser plug-in, since eBay bought it in 2007? How about Where, the location-based advertising application it bought in 2011? You have to go back to 2007 to find a deal that looks like a winner -- the StubHub ticket-buying service.

In Silicon Valley, companies that get lazy go away. You have to keep running as hard as you can to stay in the race. How fast is eBay running?

In his letter Wednesday to shareholders, Icahn focuses entirely on the Skype sale, complaining that it was sold for $1.9 billion in September 2009 to a group including eBay director Marc Andreessen and then was bought by Microsoft for $8.5 billion in May 2011.

What's missing from Icahn's account is what happened with Skype between its acquisition by eBay in October 2005 for about $2.5 billion and the sale in 2009.

Basically, eBay didn't expand Skype's offerings. It never seems to have had a plan to capitalize on the acquisition when it was made. Skype was a bad fit for eBay, telephony having little relation to e-commerce. Why was it bought in the first place?

The bottom line for Icahn should be that eBay has become a lazy company, managed for profit rather than for growth, and that from the outside it looks vulnerable to a takeover.

Instead of fighting about what the board is doing, maybe Icahn should be preparing a tender offer. Or maybe he could put in a call to Alibaba Executive Chairman Jack Ma and suggest that buying eBay might be the best way for Alibaba to go public in the U.S.

At the time of publication, the author owned shares in Amazon.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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