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Facebook's Value Is No Trick Question: Street Whispers

NEW YORK (TheStreet) - Before every Wall Streeter made it into the limelight of a trading floor or investment banking suite they had to correctly answer questions like these:

How many ping-pong balls can you fit in a Boeing (BA) 747 jet? What angle is formed between an hour hand and a minute hand on a nondigital clock when it reads 3:15?

The brainteaser - one of the rites of passage for anyone seeking entry into a banking or sales and trading analyst program -- can be a make or break moment for an aspiring banker depending on whether one screws up.

Reporters at TheStreet faced quick-answer interview questions in past lives on Wall Street, such as what is 29 x 19? Calculate the number of fire hydrants in New York City... and how many gas stations are there in America? [Hints: Show a method and some poise in solving the problem like starting with 30 x 20 to make life easier]

Stump questions sometimes even borderline on the philosophical and the absurd. A friend looking to move into a trading job at Barclays (BCS) was asked whether they'd rather be a big fish in a small pond or vice versa?

When bidding for an investment banking gig at Lehman Brothers, I was asked to value a proposal by General Electric (GE) to buy up a chain of Laundromats and detergent companies. Since GE makes millions of washing machines, the interviewer wanted to know how would I go about advising the industrial conglomerate on a plan to add verticals. [I wound up far from Lehman's M&A unit and - to my knowledge - GE's yet to unveil its big plans in the laundry biz.]

As the next batch of Goldman Sachs (GS), Morgan Stanley (MS), JPMorgan (JPM), Bank of America (BAC) and Citigroup (C) analysts sit in dorm rooms preparing for the riddle that may open or close the gates to Wall Street, I submit there's a better system.

Investment banks should simply ask interviewees to put a value on Facebook (FB).

The riddle of Facebook's valuation seems to me to be a far more productive interview question than an abstract brainteaser. Wall Street's clearly failed at putting together a cogent analysis of the company, and a new set of eyes to the problem may prove helpful.

For instance, on Wednesday, in parsing through Credit Suisse's assumption of coverage on Facebook's stock at $24 a share, the bank valued the social network's "blue sky" growth prospects in advertising and mobility at just $4.50 a share, a 60% cut from its initial estimates. Most of the price target cut came from assigning Facebook a 50% chance of being successful in its future mobile and advertising endeavors, instead of certain victory.

It seems initial analysis of "blue sky" opportunities was more like pie in the sky, so why not test newcomers to Wall Street on whether there are better ways to value Facebook? The challenge would be a good test of the skills needed in investment banks and might bring in new ideas, in a poor showing from Wall Street.

After lead underwriter Morgan Stanley and a slew of other investment banks priced Facebook's May 18 initial public offering at $38 a share, the company's subsequent near 50% stock drop and dramatic variability in published analyst estimates signal a woefully performance in valuing the billion-member plus social network.

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