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A 'rough patch' sullies Google's shares

The Internet giant's stock plunges 40% since hitting a record $741.79 in November.

March 05, 2008|By Jessica Guynn | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • ARCHITECTS: Google co-founders Sergey Brin, left, and Larry Page have acknowledged that their firm has an unconventional bent.
ARCHITECTS: Google co-founders Sergey Brin, left, and Larry Page have… (Ben Margot / Associated…)

SAN FRANCISCO — Remember when Wall Street was gaga over Google?

Despite its quirky approach to business, Google Inc. became a favorite among investors as the company best positioned to cash in on the digital media revolution. The Internet search giant's shares first hit the market at $85 in August 2004 and had risen nearly ninefold by late last year, turning Google into one of America's most valuable companies.

But since reaching a record $741.79 in November, Google's stock price has plunged 40%. The company, which only a few months ago could do no wrong, saw its stock slip $12.42, or nearly 3%, Tuesday to $444.60, its lowest point in nearly a year. The dive, which has wiped out more than $93 billion in shareholder wealth, reflects concerns that a slowdown in consumer spending could temper Google's stunning growth.

A prominent executive defection contributed to the sell-off Tuesday. Vice President Sheryl Sandberg, a six-year veteran who ran Google's multibillion-dollar advertising business, said she was leaving to become chief operating officer of Facebook Inc., the hot social-networking company.

"Google had this aura about it," said Anthony Valencia, media and entertainment analyst for TCW Group in Los Angeles, which sold 417,000 Google shares in the fourth quarter, bringing its holdings to 1.7 million.

"Now the shine is off Google, whether deservedly or not."

Google is being tested by a deep economic downturn for the first time. The 10-year-old company, based in Mountain View, Calif., gained steam during the dot-com bust, when corporations tightened their budgets but consumers started spending more time and money on the Web. Wall Street now worries that the online advertising market, which Google dominates, isn't as recession-proof as once thought.

The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index has declined 15% this year, but consumer-oriented tech companies have fared even worse. Google's shares are down 36% in 2008. Apple Inc. has tumbled 37% on worries that consumers won't buy as many iPods or computers. E-commerce giant Inc. has fallen 29%.

Investor sentiment hasn't completely turned against Google. Much of Wall Street remains bullish on its long-term prospects -- just not as bullish as it once was. Analysts are reining in earnings estimates and stock-price targets, yet 31 out of 35 people who cover Google recommend buying the stock, according to Bespoke Investment Group.

At its current level, analysts said, the stock slide probably won't impede Google's plans to invest in new technologies and emerging businesses. The company is still valued at $139 billion -- down from its November peak of $232 billion -- and generated $4.2 billion in profit last year.

But the slump might exact a psychological toll. For example, the company might have to work harder to motivate employees hired in the last year who hold stock options that are currently worthless.

"This is Google's first rough patch," said John Battelle, author of "The Search: How Google and Its Rivals Rewrote the Rules of Business and Transformed Our Culture." "It will test the character of the company."

A Google spokesman declined to comment.

Analysts attribute Google's decline partly to broader economic concerns and partly to problems of its own making.

In the opening lines of "An Owner's Manual for Google Shareholders," the letter that they wrote to prospective investors in April 2004, co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin warned: "Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one."

They pledged to sacrifice short-term financial results to pursue lofty goals and shower employees with costly perks to recruit the smartest people. The co-founders also tweaked investors by giving themselves stock with 10 times the voting power of average shareholders and vowed not to make financial forecasts.

Google has continued to push the bounds of convention. In addition to spending furiously on sophisticated computer networks and new hires, it is funding or considering expensive projects far afield from its core moneymaker of Web search, including renewable energy, wireless airwaves, undersea Internet cables and even lunar exploration.

Investors willing to overlook those eccentricities and focus on Google's business potential generally have been handsomely rewarded. And, until recently, it was considered a safe bet even in an economic slump.

No more. Economic fears have clobbered Google. Jittery investors worry that search advertising, which accounts for nearly all of its revenue, is slowing and that ambitious projects in other markets -- such as online video, mobile services and social networking -- are not paying off.

When asked about broader economic concerns at an investor conference Monday, Alan Eustace, Google's senior vice president of engineering and research, said Google had a number of factors working in its favor. But he didn't offer much reassurance.

"We'll have to see," he said.

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