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Sunday, November 9, 2014

New York | A friend once hid an elephant in plain sight for months. Are Mark Zuckerberg, management, venture capitalists, investment bankers, stock market analysts, traders and securities’ market regulators all concealing a different kind of animal underneath the facade presented in Facebook’s public financial disclosures?

As voters continue to ask tougher questions concerning the current state and future prospects of the American economy, the time has come to re-examine whether Facebook common shares truly deserve their super-high priced valuation level.


Just 10 years old as a company, Facebook generated an impressive 36 cents of free cash flow (cash flow from operations less capital expenditures) for each dollar of revenue earned during 2013. This strong performance markedly outpaced results for 2012, when Facebook generated just 8 cents of free cash flow for each dollar of revenue.

But are market participants overvaluing Facebook shares?

As of Friday, Facebook common shares were priced at $75.60 each, a level that valued the entire company at $210.8 billion. Subtracting Facebook’s excess cash, the company had an “enterprise value” of $196.8 billion.

At current levels, Facebook’s enterprise value is 25 times its 2013 revenues and 68.8 times its 2013 free cash flow.


SEE ALSO: Facebook: ‘Sweeping’ government requests for user data up 24 percent


Are such massively high valuation levels reasonable and defensible?

Facebook does not charge its valuable user base any money for the privilege of inserting personal information into its website and then spending as long as those users wish to communicate with old friends and make new ones.

Since its inception, Facebook has instead chosen to be a conduit where manufacturers and service providers can display advertisements, hoping that Facebook users will be induced to make purchases.

One key question is what the Facebook community looks like, broken down by age, location, income and spending level. A second key set of questions revolves around how engaged and active members of the Facebook community truly are.

Overall, advertising generated 88.7 percent of revenues in 2013, with payments made for “virtual” products constituting the balance.

The need for disclosure

Judging from Facebook’s minimal geographic disclosures, performance inside the United States is strong, though growth is slowing, whereas outside the United States, Facebook generates pre-tax losses on more rapidly growing revenues.

Inside the United States in 2013, Facebook earned 41 cents of pre-tax income on each dollar of domestic revenue. However, outside America, where Facebook generated 54 percent of its total revenue, the company lost 10 cents on each dollar of foreign sales.

The company should be able to present far more granular information concerning core advertising revenues, breaking down its market by age, geography and class of product/service sold, yet it chooses not to do so.

In 2014, how much do individual advertisements actually influence purchasing behavior, particularly inside America?

Consumer behavior does vary substantially according to a variety of factors, most notably age and income.

One imagines that consumer preferences harden over time, meaning that advertisements targeting younger, more impressionable consumers have more significant influence than those targeting older buyers, whose selection preferences and practices are more firmly set.

Do Facebook advertisers enjoy greatest success with younger members of their community — if so, this may be cause for serious concern, as these consumers always are stretched financially.

Facebook owes the investing community more detailed data it must be able to deliver to set the record straight.

Charles Ortel serves as managing director of Newport Value Partners (NewportValue.com), which provides economic research to executives and to investment firms.


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