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CORRECTED-UPDATE 3-Lyft says cost cuts, coming ride recovery could bring third-quarter profit

(Corrects name of CFO to Brian Roberts instead of Nelson Chai, paragraph 4)

Feb 9 (Reuters) - Lyft Inc said on Tuesday it could become profitable on an adjusted basis by the third quarter of this year despite the pandemic, three months ahead of a previous target, forecasting a rebound in ride-hail demand beginning in the second quarter of 2021.

Shares surged 9% to $58.65 in after-hours trading following the announcement.

Lyft expects COVID-19 vaccine distribution to scale up in the second quarter, allowing more people to return to pre-pandemic normality, and said its own cost cuts were ahead of target. That will help it achieve a profit.

“Based on the improvements we’ve made, there is a chance we can achieve profitability in Q3. Obviously, pulling in profitability would require a strong summer rebound,” Lyft Chief Financial Officer Brian Roberts said during an investor call, adding the more optimistic outlook should increase investor confidence.

The company reported roughly $570 million in fourth-quarter revenue, a 44% decline on a yearly basis, but an uptick of 14% compared with the third quarter. Analysts on average had expected the company to post revenue of $562 million, according to Refinitiv data.

Lyft reported a loss in adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of $150 million in the fourth quarter, indicating it must improve to reach its year-end target of adjusted EBITDA profitability. That compares with a $185 million adjusted EBITDA loss projected by analysts on average.

The smaller-than-expected loss is largely due to Lyft shaving off more costs than originally anticipated, including for software hosting services, payment processing and insurance, John Zimmer, the company’s president, told Reuters in an interview.

Those cuts of $360 million in fixed costs and additional decreases in variable costs would allow the company to continue operating more efficiently once riders return.

“As riders increase ... those lower costs will also help drive higher contribution margins,” Zimmer said.

Lyft’s number of active riders in the fourth quarter decreased by more than 45% on a yearly basis to 12,552, but revenue per active rider rose by $1 to $45.40 - a record number, the company said.

James Cordwell, an analyst with Atlantic Equities, said those numbers spoke to the pricing power held by ride-hail companies, even during a pandemic.

Lyft shares have recovered from their record lows during the early months of the virus outbreak in the United States and are trading at roughly the same level as a year ago. Shares of larger rival Uber Technologies Inc have gained more than 47% over the past 12 months.

Unlike Uber, Lyft has not been able to offset the drop in ride-hail revenue with food delivery services. Uber is scheduled to report results on Wednesday after the bell.

Lyft executives in the past have said they remained squarely focused on moving people, not goods, but last quarter the company announced it was working on a white-label or non-Lyft-branded platform to allow deliveries between different businesses for groceries, food and packages.

Zimmer told Reuters on Tuesday that Lyft’s delivery platform was still early in the process and that the business would just be additive, with the company hoping to announce partners by the middle of this year.

Zimmer said Lyft was confident that retail businesses and restaurants were looking to avoid the fees charged by food delivery platforms, including Uber Eats, GrubHub Inc and others.

“They don’t want to pay the 20% to 30% to Uber Eats to do that long-term,” he said. “Those retailers are investing in their own infrastructure, of which we would be part.”

Reporting by Tina Bellon in New York and Akanksha Rana in Bangalore Editing by Matthew Lewis

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