Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and chief executive, speaks… (David Paul Morris, Bloomberg )
As Facebook Inc. files for what is likely to be a historic initial public offering of stock, a big question looms for its millions of loyal users.
Will they be able to get in on what could be the hottest deal in years — or will they be left with their noses pressed against the glass, as individual investors typically are in coveted IPOs?
Ordinary investors normally are relegated to the sidelines in red-hot IPOs, with Wall Street brokerage firms that handle the deals parceling out shares to hedge funds, mutual funds and some ultra-wealthy individuals that generate big trading commissions.
Retail investors are left with little choice but to try to buy shares on the first day of trading. Getting a decent price before the stock rises tends to be next to impossible, and most investors miss out on the big first-day surge.
There is speculation, however, that Facebook may take steps to make some portion of its IPO shares available to small investors, partially as a public relations gesture that could generate goodwill.
"I guess there will be somewhat of an altruistic tone to the structure of the deal," said David Menlow, president of IPOfinancial.com, a research firm in Millburn, N.J. "It's important for people who are Facebook users to at least have a priority in getting shares."
Who gets shares is one of many questions that eager investors, devoted Facebook aficionados and the just plain curious hope to have answered when the company files with the Securities and Exchange Commission for an IPO that could take place in the spring.
Facebook is expected to file the paperwork as early as Wednesday, setting in motion a tumultuous three-month-or-so period in which the inner workings of the company are scrutinized and debated as never before.
Facebook could sell up to $10 billion in shares in a deal that values the company at as much as $100 billion. Wall Street brokerage Morgan Stanley is expected to lead the offering.
The IPO would be the largest ever by an Internet company, dwarfing the $1.9 billion that Google Inc. raised in its 2004 debut. It would also be the fourth-largest U.S. IPO of all time, according to research firm Renaissance Capital.
Aside from the sheer numbers, Facebook's IPO would mark a watershed that underscores the breakneck speed at which social networking has evolved from a pastime of Internet enthusiasts sharing tidbits of their lives to a potent force in everything from the business world to broad social discourse.
Later this year Facebook is expected to exceed 1 billion users — half of all people on the Internet and 1 of every 7 people on the planet — a remarkable threshold for the brainchild of 27-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, who was only 19 when he launched the social network in his Harvard dorm room in 2004.
"This is once in a decade," said Sandeep Dahiya, associate professor of finance at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. "Facebook is probably going to be the deal for many years."
The regulatory filing, known as an S1 by the SEC, will pull back the covers on a variety of financial data. Facebook will divulge information on revenue, earnings and the company's all-important growth rate that analysts up to now have only been able to guess at.
Facebook is also expected to explain how it plans to walk the precarious line between culling user data to sell to advertisers and addressing privacy concerns of its growing subscriber base.
"Right now it's a black box," Dahiya said. "We'll finally know for sure all those numbers that have been talked about."
Still, the biggest question for investors of all sizes is how to get in on the action — and whether Facebook loyalists have any chance of snagging its sought-after shares. Some analysts expect that Facebook might try to make that happen.
Aside from the public relations boost, it would help create a diversified shareholder base, experts say. Small investors are considered much less likely to "flip" shares on the first day of trading, as many institutions do.
Facebook could instruct Morgan Stanley and the other investment banks handling the deal to set aside a portion of shares for small investors with accounts less than a certain size, experts said.
Of course, only a fraction of investors would get shares. And they probably wouldn't get many. Even large investors will receive only a handful of what they want, analysts say.
"It's not like we're all going to open up our Facebook account and it'll be a little treasure box with a share of Facebook," said Kathleen Smith, a principal at Renaissance Capital.