The Facebook frenzy

Retail investors prepare to jump on a richly valued IPO

The Wall Street Journal’s page-one Facebook IPO story does a good job of capturing some uncomfortable parallels to the bubble.

The Journal profiles three investors to give us a feel for how people are thinking about the most buzzed about IPO since Google.

The headline on the story tells us that, “In Facebook IPO, Frenzy, Skepticism.” But the story shows a lot more frenzy than skepticism.

Most of the skepticism comes from a very bullish retail investor shaking his head at the hubbub surrounding the IPO.

That mania is too much for a guy who got the idea to invest in Facebook from his 11 year old back in January and tried to use his kid’s college fund, his IRA and his 401k to put $100,000 into Facebook shares on the private market.

One of the trademarks of the 90s mania was the influx of retail investors (aka dumb money) into get-rich-quick stocks with vaporous business plans. The difference with Facebook is that it actually makes money, and lots of it—but not nearly as much as its $80 billion to $100 billion valuation would imply.

If the differences are stark, the similarities are clear. Sky-high valuations unsupported by revenue and growth trendlines. Mom and pop investors in a frenzy to dump their savings into stocks marketed in a quasi-messianic manner. People buying because other people will surely be buying.

The Journal finds a high school investing club that’s trying to buy a few shares of Facebook. Their adviser went to his broker to see if he could get an in:

At the end of their hour-and-a-half meeting, he told the broker that he had one more question. He said the broker slumped his shoulders and said one word: “Facebook?”

While you shouldn’t draw conclusions from a few anecdotes in a newspaper story, it seems to me that the Journal is on to something here. I’d bet something fairly dramatic will happen when Facebook IPOs tomorrow—a surge that will blow past that eyebrow-raising $100 billion valuation.

So would The New Yorker’s John Cassidy, who calls Facebook the “ultimate” and says he wouldn’t be surprised to see it close at least one-third above its starting price. That’s not a compliment coming from someone who wrote Dot.con: How America Lost Its Mind and Money in the Internet Era back in 2002.


In Silicon Valley, many people view Facebook’s Web site, and its trove of user data, as the next key technology platform, something akin to Microsoft Windows and Apple iOS, which the company will leverage to create its own economic ecosystem—one that generates huge monopoly rents. Perhaps this will happen. For now, though, Facebook is basically an online media company, and there are some legitimate questions about its prospects. In purchasing its stock, as with buying the original dot-com stocks, investors will be laying out their cash primarily on the basis of hope and optimism rather than a clearly defined and firmly established business plan.

To me, at least, that has echoes of the past.

These enormous numbers are hard to justify based on the company’s revenue, income, and growth trendlines. Revenue growth, while still high, is slowing. Earnings growth is slowing. User growth is slowing. The company hasn’t proven—at all—that it can monetize its creepy, giant pile of user-supplied data.

CJR contributing editor Felix Salmon wrote yesterday that “this seems to be the point at which the smart money is getting out of Facebook,” though he disagrees that the Journal story is really on to something.

We’ll see.

But Felix is right that the smart money is getting out of the stock. Another Journal story reports that a huge amount of the float will come from insiders:

The change means that 57% of the offering will be coming from current holders, rather than from the company, an unusually high percentage for one of the most sought-after IPOs in years.

In comparison, when Google Inc. went public in 2004, existing holders represented 28% of sales, according to Dealogic. Private holders sold no shares in the public offerings of Yahoo Inc. and Inc. in the 1990s.

That really doesn’t bode well for the folks lining up to buy Facebook on the pop Friday. And it’s worth being extra careful about how we cover any huge run-up in the share price.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,