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Are Americans Unplugging from Facebook?

On July 26, 2018, the day after posting an outstanding quarterly earnings report, Facebook lost $119 billion in market value – for the biggest single-day loss for a public company in history. What's behind the drop?

Mark Zuckerberg F8 2018 Keynote. Photo by: Anthony Quintano from Honolulu, HI USA.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg saw his personal fortune drop by $15 billion last week. If you don’t already know this, you’re on vacation. However, the real question is, “Is this a buying opportunity?” or “Should you get out before Facebook plays out the fate of Myspace?”

By the numbers, Facebook is running an astonishing business. There are 1.5 billion daily active users on Facebook platforms (including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp), making Facebook the clear winner in social networking worldwide. According to comScore, Inc., Facebook (and Messenger) has 70 million more users in the U.S. than Snap Inc. and over 50 million more than Twitter, with 6.6 times the time online of Snap. The year over year revenue growth at Facebook was up 42%, to $13.32 billion, with net income of $5.1 billion (up 31% over last year). That’s an operating margin of 44%. These are pipe dream achievements – something that Twitter or Snapchat (or Myspace back in the day) can only dream of. By comparison, Twitter was still cash negative last year and Snap Inc. lost $3.45 billion.

For those who worry about the fickle nature of users, it is important to remember the history of migration from one social network to another. However, what Facebook has done quite well is to make their platforms very sticky. They have all of your family photos, and host many of your most cherished groups. Where would you move this? None of my friends migrated to another platform after the scandal, and the majority of the sites that popped up to take advantage of the situation were silly scams. Facebook also owns some of the fastest growing social apps in the world, including Instagram and WhatsApp, and is investing in some of the hottest areas on the Internet, specifically AI (Artificial Intelligence), AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality). This ensures that Boomers stay on Facebook and Gen Z is welcomed in with the new apps. Analysts heard all of this on the earnings calls from Zuckerberg himself, and yet the selling fire was sparked.

So what happened? Facebook reported that revenue growth will slow to only 20%-ish on the year. Costs are going to increase 50-60%, causing the operating margin to trim back to the mid-30s. Let me be clear. Revenue growth projections of 20% and operating margins of 35% are outstanding. That’s probably why, according to Reuters, “Of 47 analysts covering Facebook, 43 still rate the stock as “buy”, two rate it “hold” and only two rate it “sell”.” Their median target price is $219.30.” No U.S. social media company comes close to Facebook’s dominance. (There is a Chinese company that’s even more impressive, however.)

Facebook claims they are working hard on the fake accounts, fake news and personal privacy and security settings. In fact, private user security is part of what is costing the company in revenue and cash going forward, that and currency headwinds, combined with newer products that haven’t been fully monetized yet. Investments in AI, AR and VR aren’t bringing in much revenue today, but could be the heavy-lifters of tomorrow. AI is being employed to improve monitoring of fake accounts, fake news and user abuse. Facebook has launched a new 3D VR headset called Oculus Go, which is selling for $199.

With a market capitalization of almost half a trillion, $42 billion cash on hand and $7.8 billion remaining in the Facebook share repurchase program, investors should feel secure that the company is going to be around for a long, long time. That’s enough power to outlast the security scandal, particularly since users yawned at the news of Facebook selling their private info (which many of us already knew) and then looked away. If the Cambridge Analytica investigations steer into criminal activity, that could change. However, today, the NY Times reported that Facebook is working with the FBI to stem election campaign fake accounts and fake news, which prompted Senator Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, to praise Facebook for “taking some steps to pinpoint and address” election meddling on social media. So, even the political focus is steering away from the scandal and into Facebook’s achievements.

Despite Facebook’s clear command of social media, there is a concern about valuation – about the entire market in general – that could weigh on the share price. As Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Shiller has warned consistently this year, “The only time in history going back to 1881 when [price to earnings ratios have] been higher are, A: 1929 and B: 2000. We are at a high level, and its concerning. People should be cautious now.” In fact, it was likely profit-taking, more than fear of the future, that prompted most sellers last week.

So, even though I’m bullish on Facebook – not at this price and not in the 10th year of an overvalued bull market. Americans aren’t unplugging from Facebook, and neither are analysts. However, making sure that your investments are balanced and diversified and not over-concentrated in any one area, even in something as hot as Facebook, is always a good idea.

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