Facebook IPO stumbles: Why didn't it wow investors?

The Facebook IPO underwhelmed Friday, closing up only 23 cents. Investors are still debating Facebook's worth: Is it must-own stock or a company with limited growth potential? 

Richard Drew/AP
A man stops to photograph Nasdaq in Times Square as Facebook has its IPO on May 18 in New York. The social media company priced its IPO on Thursday at $38 per share, and beginning Friday regular investors had chance to buy shares.

It's finally official: Facebook is a publicly traded company, and investors in its newly listed stock now own some 421 million shares in the company that has come to define social networking in the online world.

Or, in Facebook jargon, the company has been "friended" by Wall Street.

Shares in the initial public offering (IPO) had an offering price of $38 per share. After trading at times above $42, the price closed at $38.23 Friday – a closing level buoyed by purchases coming from the IPO's own Wall Street underwriters, according to news reports. 

So this wasn't the strong showing many analysts had expected, which raises the obvious question for investors: Where is this stock headed?

Skeptics argue the company's staying power and profit potential have been overhyped, while fans see it as the world's must-own social media stock. It may take a while to know which side is right.

On the "buy" side of this debate, Facebook has unrivaled clout in its market, with roughly 1 in 8 people on the planet using the site to swap photos and information. More keep signing up every day. That's a platform of activity that the company can monetize through advertising revenue and add-on services.

The negative view is that all that may be true, but it may not justify the company's current market value on Friday of close to $100 billion. After an extraordinary growth surge since its founding in 2004, Facebook is now gaining customers and revenue at a decelerating pace. If future growth doesn't come in strong, the share price could easily go down rather than up.

The tug-and-pull between those views seemed evident Friday. There was enthusiasm enough to push the stock above its offering price, but skepticism was strong enough to keep it from soaring.

Some Wall Street analysts attributed the relatively tepid trading in "FB" (Facebook's ticker symbol) partly to the sheer size of the offering, with the market absorbing $16 billion worth of the company's equity in just one day. (Much of the equity remains in the hands of founders like CEO Mark Zuckerberg and early investors.)

It didn't help that earlier this week, General Motors announced it would stop advertising on Facebook, drawing attention to debate about how valuable the firm's ad space is.

As a platform where millions of consumers spend time, Facebook still has lots of ad customers. But uncertainty threatens Facebook on two fronts: How well can it execute, and will competitors come along at some point that successfully challenge its dominance?

The IPO puts the pressure on, as public shareholders expect the firm to turn its customer base into a bigger source of profit. That pressure is there even though Mr. Zuckerberg, who will still control the company because of his majority stock voting-rights, has issued a personal statement that the company is "built to accomplish a social mission" more than for profit.

One recent estimate, by Forrester Research, found that Facebook is currently generating about $4 in revenue per active user. A company called Abine has developed a Facebook Val-You Calculator designed to show how much you are worth to Facebook in ad revenue, if you've got a page on the network.

For now, Facebook has the dominant market position. Its vast user base is its strength: If you want to network online, you want to go where your friends already are. That dominance may last a long while, but the history of technology is that monopolies don't last forever.

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