By Jack Hough
Facebook (FB) on Tuesday tumbled another 8.9% to $31 – well below last week’s $38 initial offering price. Shareholders who had bought the stock for a quick flip must now consider whether to defy all those Facebook skeptics and hold it longer.
That has worked out beautifully for anyone who has held Google (GOOG) stock since its 2004 debut. It has multiplied six-fold in price.
Like Facebook, Google is a purely online business with a dominant market share. It makes most of its money from advertising and turns a high percentage of each revenue dollar into operating profits. Its stock was also initially panned by many as too expensive.
But there are also some important differences between the two companies that may prevent Facebook from producing a Google-like performance over the next eight years. Here are three.
1. Facebook is nearly twice as expensive as Google was following its own stock market debut.
When Google came to market in August 2004, it had booked $2.3 billion in revenues over the prior four quarters. The stock ended its first day of trading at a price that valued Google at $27 billion. Those numbers make for a price-to-revenues ratio of about 12.
Facebook ended Tuesday with a value of $85 billion, and it has brought in $4 billion in revenues over the past four quarters. That’s a price-to-revenues ratio of 21.
Google has found a way to multiply its revenues 17 times since its initial stock offering, to $40 billion. If Facebook can do likewise, investors should expect its stock to do half as well, considering that it’s starting at nearly twice the price. That would nonetheless provide a handsome return for investors. But it may be unrealistic to expect that kind of revenue growth from Facebook.
2. Google has already plucked the low-hanging fruit.
Back in 2004, newspapers and magazines together captured 43.8% of advertising spending, versus just 3.7% for websites, according to Zenith Optimedia. That gap has narrowed. This year, 27.3% of advertising dollars are expected to go to newspapers and magazines, and 18.2% is expected to go to websites.
The shift from print to online advertising will continue, but not as quickly. In 2014, newspapers and magazines will collect 24.1% of advertising dollars, versus 22.1% for websites, predicts Zenith Optimedia.
In other words, Google thrived in part by capturing business from vulnerable print publications, but the weakest of these have closed, and others have built thriving websites. Facebook will have to compete for ad dollars with a stronger core of print companies and their websites, and more important, with the likes of Google.
3. The world only needs so much advertising.
Suppose Facebook grows much more skilled in turning its traffic into advertising dollars. Couldn’t it then multiply its revenues 17 times over the next eight years, the way Google has over the past eight? After all, the company’s active user base consists of 13% of humanity.
There’s a problem with that thinking, however. Google’s rise didn’t prevent print media companies from selling ads. Rather, it cratered the prices for such ads. For example, Google’s AdSense allowed just about any website owner to sell advertising by banding together with a massive jumble of other websites. The result was a flood of new pages available for ads, creating more supply than demand.
For a company of Facebook’s size, that presents a dilemma. If it doesn’t learn how to effectively sell ads against its massive traffic, its revenues won’t grow quickly, but if it does learn, the result may be a glut of ad-space supply and a drop in prices, restraining revenue growth just the same.
Global advertising spending is expected to increase 4.8% this year, according to Zenith Optimedia. Facebook’s revenues, meanwhile, are projected by analysts to increase 36% this year to $5.1 billion. That’s fast growth and it suggests Facebook is indeed taking market share, but it’s early in the company’s publicly traded life. For the stock to pay off over the long term, Facebook will have to continue to outgrow the advertising industry by a similar margin for many years to come.
Google has done it. But then, in its first year as a public company, its revenues didn’t rise a mere 36%. They more than doubled.