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UPDATE 4-EBay forecast disappoints Wall St view; shares drop
* Q4 adjusted EPS 41 cts vs Wall St view of 39 cts
* Sees adj '09 Q1 EPS 32-34 cts, below analyst view 40 cts
* Shares down nearly 6 percent after hours (Adds detail from conference call, Amazon share price)
By Alexandria Sage
SAN FRANCISCO, Jan 21 (Reuters) - EBay Inc (EBAY.O) beat expectations for quarterly profit on Wednesday but gave a weaker-than-expected forecast for the current quarter, sending its shares down nearly 6 percent.
Some on Wall Street question how eBay will generate growth, given curtailed consumer spending and pressure from a host of competitors. The company has increased its emphasis on fixed-price goods instead of auctions, making it more of a direct rival to Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O), which many view as the stronger firm.
The global spending slowdown has hurt eBay's ability to attract buyers to its auction sites and the stronger U.S. dollar also crimped profit from its overseas operations.
"Clearly we've been operating in an almost unprecedented external environment," Chief Executive John Donahoe told analysts.
Analysts said the company's first-quarter view, which came in well below Wall Street estimates, was a bleak sign, particularly as the company gave no forecast for the full year.
Jeffrey Lindsay of Bernstein Research called it "a pessimistic guidance for 2009."
"The real story is they are guiding down a lot," he said.
Net profit in the fourth quarter, usually eBay's strongest because of holiday sales, fell to $367 million, or 29 cents per share, from $531 million, or 39 cents per share, a year earlier.
Excluding charges from a 10 percent staff reduction last fall and other restructuring efforts, earnings per share came to 41 cents, at the top of eBay's forecast and beating the Wall Street view of 39 cents, according to Reuters Estimates.
Total revenue fell 7 percent to $2.04 billion, below the $2.11 billion expected by Wall Street. The bulk of that was due to a 16 percent drop at its main business, which largely consists of its auction sites.
Revenue rose 26 percent at Web-based telephone company Skype and 11 percent at Web payments service PayPal.
Donahoe told Reuters the company had no plans to spin off those businesses. Asked about that possibility during the call, Donahoe said being part of eBay was not a constraint to PayPal's growth.
He called Skype a "stand-alone business" with minimal crossover with eBay's other divisions, but added: "We are going to continue to run and operate the business. It's not a distraction currently."
For the fiscal 2009 first quarter, eBay expects adjusted earnings of 32 cents to 34 cents on revenue of $1.8 billion to $2.05 billion. Analysts had forecast earnings per share of 40 cents.
STRUGGLE WITH AMAZON
EBay, whose shares are down 56 percent from a year ago, has faced an uphill battle trying to stimulate growth in its marketplaces unit, while confronting rivals such as Amazon and craigslist.com.
The stock fell to $12.52 after hours, erasing the 6 percent gain made in regular trade when shares closed at $13.28. Amazon shares closed up 4 percent in regular trade to $50.54.
"There is just less velocity and less business being closed," said Martin Pyykkonen of Wunderlich Securities, of eBay. "They're looking more and more like just another fixed price retailer."
Gross merchandise volume, excluding vehicles, fell 4 percent on a currency-neutral basis, as consumers trade down to lower-priced goods on eBay. Global active users rose 5 percent in the quarter, while sold items rose 3 percent.
In October, the San Jose, California-based company warned it could be hit by a grim economy curtailing consumer spending in the United States and across much of the globe. Some 53 percent of eBay sales come from abroad.
The company, which has been laying off workers while boosting its marketing efforts, has taken several steps to revive growth in auctions, including lower listing fees, coupons and better security.
Those investments weighed on operating margins, which fell in the fourth quarter to 22.3 percent from 28.7 percent a year earlier.
EBay shares, valued at 8.3 times fiscal 2009 projected earnings, are at a deep discount to Amazon at 36, Yahoo Inc (YHOO.O) at 27 and Google Inc (GOOG.O) at 14 times expected earnings. (Editing by Edwin Chan, Phil Berlowitz)
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