If Facebook's IPO goes south, social, tech markets could take a hit

With unresolved issues on mobile, advertising and its hoodie-wearing CEO, Facebook still faces challenges

With Facebook's initial public offering creating such a frenzy of interest, there's an important question to be considered: What happens if tomorrow or next week or five months from now, this investment goes south?

"There is such a massive anticipation for this IPO that any stumble by the company, in terms of its strategy or its earnings, could lead to massive losses very quickly," said Andrew Stoltmann, a securities lawyer with Stoltmann Law Offices in Chicago. "Every IPO involves risk, but given the lofty valuation on Facebook, it involves even more risk."

With Facebook expected to launch its IPO on Friday, anticipation is reaching a fever pitch.

The social network company has about 900 million active monthly users. According to Experian Hitwise, one in every five page views in the U.S. was on Facebook, and this one social networking site has received more than 400 billion page views this year in the U.S. alone.

Many potential investors have their own -- or their kids' -- experiences with the site -- playing Words with Friends, keeping track of college roommates, posting updates about family vacations and videos of softball games.

Meanwhile, the social networking company has taken a few hits in the past few weeks that might give prospective investors pause.

An Associated Press-CNBC poll released this week found that three of every five Facebook users have little or no faith that the social network will keep their personal information private. The survey also found that half of Americans say Facebook is a passing fad.

Industry analysts were also troubled with Facebook's inability to generate revenue off its growing number of mobile users. Questions also arose during the company's IPO roadshow about the level of maturity of Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, 28, and whether he had the skills to lead a major public company. There was also criticism of Zuckerberg for showing up for a presentation to a buttoned-down group of high-powered investors wearing jeans and a hoodie sweatshirt.

The biggest strike may have been Tuesday when General Motors, one of the country's largest advertisers, pulled out of a $10 million advertising deal with Facebook. The auto maker concluded that its paid ads on the social network were ineffective in driving more business.

However, none of these incidents stopped Facebook from moving to increase the price range of its stock from $29 to $34 per share to $34 to $38.

The new range could boost Facebook's valuation to more than $100 billion.

That massive valuation is causing some concern.

"The biggest thing that creates the largest risk for investors is the outsized expectations," Stoltmann said. "I would say it's at least 50/50 for there to be a big run up and then a price slump... The IPO could open very hot, but there could be thousands of investors who lose massive amounts of money."

He cited Groupon, an online daily deal pioneer that came out strong with its IPO early last November but whose stock has plummeted more than 40% from its IPO price. That's also what happened with online radio company Pandora Media, which is down about 42% from its IPO price.

"Suddenly this feels very dot-com like," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "A young, inexperienced CEO making textbook mistakes, a huge customer running for the hills and acting vindictively, lots of talk about instant millionaires and raising the offer price in the face of value concerns... And this is public enough to behave like a bellwether and certainly could adversely impact social networking, but it also feels big enough to adversely impact the tech segment. My hope is that it won't, but my gut says it will."

Both Enderle and Stoltmann noted that if Facebook's IPO goes south, it could have negative repercussions on the social networking world. Companies like Twitter, for instance, could have a harder time generating business and investor interest in its own future IPO.

"Facebook is the bluest of blue chip social media companies out there," Stoltmann said. "I think it's a harbinger, and I think [if Facebook's IPO goes badly], it would be very disconcerting to other social media companies."

However, negative ripples could easily extend beyond the social networking world into the entire tech industry.

"If a company as large and as high profile as Facebook tanks, it's possible it could have an adverse affect on the tech market as a whole," added Stoltmann. "I would certainly hope not, but perception is such a big part of valuations on technology stocks."

Enderle noted that if the technology market were to stumble and that was coupled with trouble in the oil markets or the European economies, there could be trouble ahead for the overall U.S. economy.

Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, isn't quite as concerned about Facebook's IPO.

"At this point, the train has left the station, and the Facebook IPO will be a huge event for many constituents," Moorhead said. "This is important not only for Facebook, but the entire IPO market as a whole. There is an 'appropriate' amount of excitement around the Facebook launch given the implications it has to future IPOs and the state of the tech industry."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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