OpenTable’s Surge Lures Shorts After Best U.S. IPO

By Nikolaj Gammeltoft (Bloomberg)

OpenTable Inc. short sellers are placing record wagers against the online restaurant-reservation company, betting it will slump after posting bigger gains than every other U.S. initial public offering in the past two years.

The San Francisco-based company’s shares jumped 230 percent through yesterday since the IPO almost 18 months ago. The rally convinced investors to sell short 15 percent of its shares outstanding, the most since OpenTable began trading in May 2009 and more than twice its average level, according to data compiled by Data Explorers, a New York-based research firm.

Rady Asset Management LLC and T2 Partners LLC are betting OpenTable’s prospects don’t justify a price-earnings ratio of 122, or eight times higher than the valuation for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index. While analysts estimate the company will post 51 percent growth in per-share profit in 2011, OpenTable may run out of room to expand its business, said T2’s Whitney Tilson, who lost money when the shares jumped 11 percent on Nov. 3 following the company’s quarterly earnings report.

“It’s one of the most overvalued stocks we’ve ever seen,” said Whitney Tilson, who oversees $214 million with Glenn Tongue at T2 in New York. “It’s a well-run company, but it’s stretching for growth and the earnings report was misinterpreted as a spectacular report, when it was only OK.”

Tiffany Fox, a spokeswoman for OpenTable, declined to comment.

Fourfold Profit Gain

OpenTable, which posted a fourfold increase in third- quarter income last week, makes money from restaurants that install its system and collects monthly subscriptions and a fee for each guest seated through online bookings. Diners schedule reservations for free through OpenTable’s website or applications on devices such as Apple Inc.’s iPhone.

The stock, which has at least five analyst “buy” ratings and seven “holds,” peaked at $69.61 on Nov. 4 after the third- quarter earnings announcement. It closed at $65.95 yesterday, and fell 1.5 percent to $64.94 at 10:09 a.m. in New York.

OpenTable has one of the best management teams among small Internet companies with strong growth opportunities, according to Citigroup Inc. analyst Mark Mahaney, who increased his share- price estimate to $80 this month. The stock has risen 16 percent since he boosted his rating to “buy” from “hold” on Sept. 13.

“What OpenTable has proven is that it has created a dominant transactions platform on which in can layer in new, high-margin revenue streams,” the San Francisco-based analyst wrote in a note to investors last week. “Impressive.”

Adding to Bet

Tilson said his firm started betting against OpenTable several weeks ago and added to the wager after the quarterly report drove the shares higher. Short selling is the sale of borrowed stock in the hope of profiting by buying the securities later at a lower price and returning them to the shareholder.

OpenTable reported third-quarter earnings excluding some items of 23 cents a share, beating the average analyst estimate by 54 percent, Bloomberg data show. The number of restaurants using its software rose to 15,246 as of Sept. 30, up 31 percent from a year earlier. The company is expanding its web-based Connect service, a lower-cost alternative for restaurants that take fewer reservations.

“They are cutting their prices to customers in order to maintain the growth in restaurants that investors want to see,” said Tilson, whose Tilson Focus Fund has outperformed 93 percent of peers in the past five years, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. “You can cut prices to help growth, but that will eventually hurt your profit.”

Short Interest

The proportion of OpenTable shares that were sold short climbed to 15 percent on Nov. 3, according to Data Explorers. That compares with a low of 1.5 percent in December. The company’s 230 percent rally since it sold shares in May 2009 is the most among companies that conducted initial public offerings since Jan. 1, 2009, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“We would argue that the stock price could be 50 percent lower,” said Harry Rady, chief executive officer of Rady Asset Management in La Jolla, California, which runs a long-short fund that is betting against OpenTable. “The stock is ahead of itself and is priced for perfection.”

OpenTable has created a service called Spotlight that offers coupons to restaurants. It competes with Groupon Inc., the owner of a coupon website with 20 million subscribers that’s seeking venture funding in a deal that may value the company at about $3 billion, according to people familiar with the matter. OpenTable has a stock-market value of $1.52 billion.

“OpenTable is a pure valuation trade for us,” said Rady, who manages $270 million. “The stock is too expensive, even using the most optimistic assumptions, which therefore makes it vulnerable.”

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