Shatner beams up Priceline to be S&P's first $1,000 stock
Priceline.com is set to become the S&P 500's first ever $1,000 stock as pitchman William Shatner fuels domestic growth and as international units gain market share in countries slow to transfer over to online travel bookings.
The amazing part is that the stock heads toward this feat with a reasonable valuation when compared to competitors and other high growth Internet companies, investors and analysts said.
"Priceline's comeback is almost as remarkable as Shatner's," said Simon Baker of Baker Avenue Asset Management. "Their recent blowout numbers were particularly impressive. Crank the dial to 1,000 and 'Beam me up Scotty.'"
Shares of Priceline are up more than 70 percent since bringing back Shatner of "Star Trek" fame back as its star in U.S. advertisements one year ago (after "killing" him off seven months prior in an ad).
The stock went into warp drive last week after the company reported net income had jumped 24 percent in the second quarter, as travel bookings climbed 38 percent. Even more impressive, international bookings surged 44 percent (ex-currency costs) in the period, marking the fifth quarter in a row of 40 to 45 percent growth for that metric, according to Piper Jaffray.
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At least 17 Wall Street analysts came out with glowing reports after the earnings release, raising their targets to above $1,000. The average target price of those analysts is $1,133.
Standard & Poor's confirmed there has never been a $1,000 a share member in the 56-year history of the S&P 500, even during the dot-com bubble that gave birth to Priceline. Of course back then, many companies would split their shares before getting close to that milestone.
That financial maneuver has grown out of practice as companies try to emulate Warren Buffett's and Steve Jobs' dislike of stock splits for encouraging speculation. Currently, Google—whose founders also don't believe in splitting stock—has the second-highest stock price in the index at $884 a share.
"Our new $1,110 price target is based on 21 times our 2014 (pro forma) EPS of $52.57," wrote JMP Securities analyst Ronald Josey. This price-earnings ratio "is slightly above Priceline's historical average forward year multiple of 20.5 times since 2008, but given share gains, booking growth, a stabilizing macro and improving margins, we believe shares are being re-rated higher."
While an astute acquisition of fare aggregator Kayak.com will help drive Priceline's growth here in the U.S., it's the company's international sites like Booking.com, TravelJigsaw and Agoda that will be the biggest driver of future earnings growth, according to the analysts.
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Goldman Sachs sees adjusted earnings per share jumping 11 percent in 2014 and 14 percent in 2015 as Europe stabilizes.
"Priceline is one of the few stocks on a monster run in 2013 where the company has grown earnings just as quickly as the stock has appreciated," said Enis Taner, global macro editor for RiskReversal.com. "In the past three years earnings have tripled and the stock has tripled. This stock is no bubble."
The one concern analysts cited was overspending on marketing expenses, especially in Europe as Priceline tries to steal from existing sites or be the first stop for users switching from offline to online hotel bookings. But if the company can keep margins under control, the trip to $1,000 should be coming in at least the next 12 months, analysts said.
Ironically, it may be its marquee pitchman here in the U.S. who needs a raise. As the stock rocketed higher last week, Shatner tweeted this out:
"Congratulations to @Priceline on their stock price. Wish I hadn't sold my stock all those years ago."
—By CNBC's John Melloy. Follow him on Twitter @CNBCMelloy.