October 30, 2017 / 11:04 AM / 25 days ago

Investors hope for details in Shopify's response to short seller

TORONTO (Reuters) - Retail software company Shopify Inc (SHOP.TO) may not be willing to release as many operational details as some investors are hoping for in response to a short seller’s criticism, a shareholder and several analysts said.

FILE PHOTO: Canadian e-commerce company Shopify Inc logo is shown on a computer screen in the illustration photo in Encinitas, California May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

The Ottawa-based company, which provides software and back-end services to retailers, is expected to notch further sharp sales growth of roughly 67 percent versus a year ago but still no profit when it reports third-quarter earnings on Tuesday.

Shopify’s founder and CEO Tobi Lutke has said he would use the company’s earnings call to respond to complaints from short-seller Andrew Left of Citron Research, which included criticism of payments to bloggers and others who get merchants to sign up to Shopify’s commerce platform. Left also called for the company to disclose the rate at which customers leave.

A spokeswoman declined to say what Shopify plans to disclose. One investor, who asked not to be named, said Lutke should not reveal “state secrets” just to squash Left’s criticism.

Left’s report earlier this month hit Shopify’s share price, but it has recovered somewhat, and not all investors agree with his analysis.

The Shopify shareholder, who declined to be identified discussing a holding, said the company could create a short squeeze by disclosing the average amount its roughly 2,500 high-end Shopify Plus members pay per month.

The minimum amount is $2,000, with additional charges due for those processing higher sales volumes.

But “they don’t need to give away state secrets just because of a self-interested short seller,” the shareholder added.

The company could also neutralize Left by, for example, telling investors how many of its more than 500,000 customers sell goods worth more than $100,000 a year, said Thomas Forte, a D.A. Davidson & Co analyst who has a neutral rating on the stock.

The company likely sees a high rate of merchants on its cheaper plans dropping off in their first year on the platform, several analysts said. But that number, known as churn, likely improves over time as successful businesses stick around.

“I’d love to have churn, I just don’t think we’ll get it,” said RBC Capital Markets analyst Ross MacMillan, who downgraded the stock to sector perform earlier this year on the basis of its red-hot valuation and a more subdued view on the likely timeline for new services to boost earnings.

Shopify’s U.S. shares trading on the New York Stock Exchange (SHOP.N) had roughly tripled in value this year, hitting a peak near $124 in September. But they fell below $90 in the wake of Left’s report and have partially recovered since, last trading at $107.

Despite Left’s attentions, the percentage of Shopify shares on loan to investors betting its price will fall has slipped since his report, to 3.66 percent of shares outstanding as of Oct. 12 versus 3.83 percent as of Sept. 28.

Since Left’s report, the company has made several announcements that boosted its image as a fast-growing tech darling, including plans to triple its headcount in Waterloo in the next couple of years - adding between 300 and 500 jobs to support Shopify Plus - and teaming up with DHL to provide international shipping for its small business customers.

Reporting by Alastair Sharp; Editing by David Gregorio

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