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Facebook IPO falls short of the hype

Facebook's flat performance on its first day of trading raises questions about the stock's prospects.

May 18, 2012|Walter Hamilton, Jessica Guynn and Tiffany Hsu, Los Angeles Times
  • Visitors watch as Facebook is listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange, shown on the board in Times Square in New York.
Visitors watch as Facebook is listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange, shown… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

There wasn't much to like about Facebook's first day as a public company.

The social media giant's stock rose by mere pennies in its initial public offering. The shares closed at $38.23, barely above the $38 IPO price.

The performance fell far short of the grandiose expectations of Wall Street and Silicon Valley, and raised questions about whether the company's stock will be the sure bet many had counted on.

"There was all this pressure and hype and attention with all eyes on Facebook — and the starlet tripped on the red carpet," said Max Wolff, an analyst at GreenCrest Capital Management in New York.

What went wrong? Analysts point to a variety of factors that might have given investors pause. Its valuation at about 100 times earnings likely struck some as too high. Its growth in new users is slowing. And Facebook has not yet found a way to cash in on mobile devices, where social media is gravitating.

This week's decision by General Motors Co. to stop advertising on Facebook because it wasn't getting results heightened concerns about how Facebook can profit from its 900 million users.

But perhaps the biggest blunders came in recent days as the company and its largest shareholders moved to maximize their profits at the expense of new investors.

On Monday, Facebook raised the stock's projected price to a range of $34 to $38 from the initial $28 to $35, and priced it at the peak of $38 on Thursday. That made Facebook far more expensive than established competitors such as Apple Inc. and Google Inc. based on the companies' earnings.

On Wednesday, the company announced that longtime investors led by Goldman Sachs planned to sell big chunks of their holdings in the IPO. That struck some investors as greedy and a sign that Wall Street insiders were getting out while they could.

"There was a lot of smart money dumping it," said Barry Ritholtz, chief executive of research firm Fusion IQ.

That added to fears among professionals and individuals who were burned by the late-1990s dot-com boom and subsequent stock-market crash.

"Investors have a won't-get-fooled-again attitude in the sense they have learned their lesson after the dot-com crash and 10 years later they are more discerning," said Anthony Valencia, a media analyst at TCW Group. "Now it's more of a show-me attitude."

Facebook also was a victim of heightened expectations stirred by its own success. The IPO raised $16 billion, making it the third-largest in U.S. history. It valued the entire company at $104 billion, the largest ever for a newly public company.

But Facebook failed to notch the sizable first-day gains that had become de rigueur for scores of previous big-name companies. Google jumped 18% on its first day in 2004 and professional networking company LinkedIn Corp. surged 49% a year ago.

Facebook's disappointing entrance sent a tremor through the broader technology industry, which had hoped to capitalize on the excitement generated by the public fascination with social media.

Other social media stocks got walloped, with daily deals site Groupon Inc. slipping 7% and Zynga Inc. falling 13%.

The day began before dawn at Facebook's Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters, where about 2,000 Facebook workers gathered at the campus preparing for the company's debut on the Nasdaq exchange. A catering team handed out breakfast sandwiches to fuel the troops. Many had been up all night in a pre-IPO hackathon.

TV trucks swarmed the campus and two helicopters circled overhead.

About five minutes before the stock officially started trading at about 8:30 a.m PST, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, in his trademark dark gray hoodie and jeans, addressed the crowd. The company's senior leaders and others who worked on the IPO joined Zuckerberg and Sandberg on an outdoor stage, as did Nasdaq Chief Executive Robert Greifeld.

After a countdown of "five, four, three, two, one," Zuckerberg hit the opening "bell," to hoots of approval across the crowd.

But things went south from there. Just fifteen minutes after the stock began trading, brokerages complained that they weren't getting confirmation that trades were going through. Nasdaq warned that there were glitches in executing trades. Some agitated investors waited more than two hours to learn if their orders went through.

The problems caught the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which said it would launch an investigation of the technical problems to prevent future snafus. The exchange also said it was looking into the matter.

Some analysts said they weren't surprised to see the stock price end the day about where it began.

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