Facebook is on the hunt for a new chief financial officer in hopes of going public, according to reports, although one analyst argues the Internet property missed a golden opportunity for an initial public offering that may not return for several years. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that CFO Gideon Yu, who joined Facebook in 2007 after a stint at YouTube, will leave the company. The social networking Web site has already commenced a search for a new chief financial officer with "public company experience," a person close to the matter told the Journal. This seems to be a strong indication that Facebook is finally gearing up for an initial public offering, even though the IPO market isn't expected to heat up in 2009. Renaissance Capital, which operates the Web site IPOHome.com, said that initial public offerings dried up in 2008 as a result of extreme risk aversion and credit woes, and IPO activity will be low in 2009 with high-growth stories less likely to be successful. Should Facebook decide to go public this year, some analysts wonder if the ability to transform itself into a major tech player even exists, which could be a large concern for investors looking to buy into an IPO. Jeffrey Lindsay, analyst with Sanford Bernstein, argues that Facebook had the last best shot at an Internet initial public offering in the U.S., and that opportunity may not return for years. Lindsay turns the calendar all the way back to October 2007, when Microsoft ( MSFT) invested $240 million for a 1.6% stake in Facebook, pinning the overall valuation at $15 billion. In the deal, Microsoft not only bought preferred shares to make sure it would get paid first in the event the Facebook was acquired, but also secured an advertising deal and elbowed rival Google ( GOOG) out of the picture.
"It was still possible to do an IPO at that time," Lindsay said. "At this minute, they have to be thinking one to two years out and wait for the market to change. But they're probably... having great difficulty developing a monetization model." Like many others, Lindsay is skeptical of companies like Facebook that don't have a demonstrative business model. Given how tough the advertising environment is now, it's easy to agree with Lindsay that companies can't show spectacular growth through advertising alone. More troubling to analysts like Lindsay is that Facebook doesn't have the past financial results that would lure enough investors. The Journal's source asserted that Facebook expects revenue growth of at least 70% in 2009 from a year ago; that it has positive earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, or EBITDA, for the past five quarters; and that it expects to be cash flow positive in 2010. However, Lindsay says Facebook would have to show a far better operational track record. "The days of when you can go public without a proper business model are over," Lindsay added. "If they wanted to have any hope of getting a reasonably subscribed IPO, they'd need to clearly demonstrate growth in revenues and a definite path to good profitability at the absolute minimum. Right now, they're well short of that." His advice? Facebook should get a few more years of operational growth under its belt before it looks to an IPO.
Valuation Problems Still LingerAnother problem that could plague Facebook if it decides on an IPO would be its valuation. Analysts have long argued what Facebook's proper valuation is and each side presents a compelling argument.
On one hand, Microsoft's investment pegged the company's total value near $15 billion; on the other hand, tech companies with stronger revenue streams and better advertising models, such as Google and Yahoo! ( YHOO), have seen their share value slashed in half since that valuation was made. Google shares have plunged more than 40% to $348 a share, while Yahoo!'s stock has fallen more than 50% to $12.81. Even Microsoft, one of Facebook's key investors, has dropped 30% to $18.37. It's not hard to believe that Facebook's value has slid dramatically as well.