Facebook IPO: Should we “Like” it?

Yes, I know, investor relations people should be thrilled to see life returning to the IPO market in 2012 – and here comes Facebook, the biggest Internet IPO of all, to stir up interest in public markets. But I’m wavering on whether to click “Like” or “Not-so-much.”

I can’t help feeling that all the hoopla around the social media giant’s pending public-company status may be a sign of a frothy top in the stock market. I hope not – and I do wish Facebook success in its IPO. It’s a wonderful growth story.

The stock market has had a good run recently, despite some nervous days. The S&P 500 is up 110% since about this time in 2009. The Nasdaq Composite has reached a level it hasn’t seen since 2000, not the top of the dot-com bubble but the time when prices were still deflating. And the market may keep rising for now.

Two things bother me a bit about the Facebook IPO:

Valuation. The prices being bantered about seem a little unhinged from reality. Andrew Bary’s commentary this weekend in Barron’s is interesting:

The best businesses can be poor investments, if you pay the wrong price. That’s worth considering as Facebook readies the most closely watched initial public offering in years—a deal that could value the seven-year-old company at $100 billion. …

Assume Facebook comes public at around $40, a slight premium to its private-market price. That would value the company at $92 billion, based on 2.3 billion shares outstanding. At $40, Facebook would trade for 93 times trailing earnings and 25 times 2011 revenue of $3.7 billion. … If Facebook’s profit doubles in 2012, topping the 65% gain in 2011, it would earn 86 cents and trade for nearly 50 times earnings.

The FB offering brings back “eyeballs” as a major performance metric – in this case, Facebook’s 845 million users and the assumption that there simply must be ways to make lots and lots of money off of all those eyeballs.

Exuberance. That gee-whiz enthusiasm, built on a rising market and a technology so popular grandmas are using it to follow the kids’ activities online, is just a little scary. The New York Times‘ Jeff Sommer commented this weekend:

THE financial system may not be in great shape, but why dwell on it? Stocks are rising and I.P.O. euphoria is in the air. … Greed in the market is rising, and for some seasoned investors, there is an uneasy sense they’ve read this script before.

“It’s like we’re finally emerging from nuclear winter for I.P.O.’s but we’ve forgotten our history,” said Harold Bradley, chief investment officer for the Kauffman Foundation and a former executive with the American Century mutual funds. “If we don’t start paying attention, we’ll be making the same stupid mistakes all over again.”

If the stock market teaches anything, it is to keep historical perspective, watch the broader context of the economy and markets, and not bet too much on an upward-sloping line you can draw through the past couple of years’ performance.

Good news for investors is that Facebook’s S-1 filing reports five years of rapidly rising revenues and three years of real earnings, also fast-growing. So this isn’t an “idea on a cocktail napkin” IPO from 1999. But neither is it J&J or Procter & Gamble.

If I were the IRO for Facebook, I would be emphasizing three messages to investors:

  1. Revenue and earnings. We have ’em, and here’s why they are sustainable. Investors should understand the varied revenue streams and their profitability. The IR story is about financial returns, not the social mission.
  2. Value for customers. Not the 845 million – users are essential but aren’t the ones who pay Facebook. The business is selling access to FB’s users to advertisers, application developers and the like. How much value does Facebook deliver to these customers – now and over the next few years?
  3. Durability. Investors must be concerned about what happens if Facebook’s “cool factor” wears off and users start taking photos and events and friends to newer, cooler platforms. Facebook needs to communicate its strategies for sustaining the dominant position in social media.

A friend tells me his worst investment decision ever was Apple: He bought AAPL at $15 a share and sold when it hit $35 – and he’s been kicking himself all the way up to $450. I must admit my investing instincts run in that same vein. Apple is a great example of “cool” staying cool – for consumers and shareholders. So Facebook may soar in its IPO – and continue to fly in the years to come.

What are your thoughts on the Facebook IPO?

© 2012 Johnson Strategic Communications Inc.

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