Facebook: Spending Like a Drunken Sailor?

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Facebook's ( FB) fourth-quarter results beat estimates, but Wall Street's concerned the social network is like the rest of America: it might have a spending problem.

Facebook did not provide first-quarter 2013 guidance, but did note that capital expenditures for 2013 will be around $1.8 billion, as the company ramps up its hiring and infrastructure spending. CFO David Ebersman said that total expenses, excluding stock-based compensation, will likely grow around 50% in 2013.

It will be worth watching where the expenses will be in the 2013 calendar year. Ebersman did not note this on the call, but Fusion-IO ( FIO), a heavy Facebook and Apple ( AAPL) supplier, cut its 2013 revenue outlook as Facebook and Apple delayed orders. "... The change in our guidance reflects a two-quarter shift in the timing of their bulk purchases," Fusion-io CFO Dennis Wolf said in the press release.

Citigroup analyst Neil Doshi downgraded shares to "neutral" on the sharply higher operating expenses, and little, if any, revenue gained from some of the company's newer initiatives. "We view FB as a core long-term 'Net stock. But with plans to invest heavily in the biz in 2013, and little expected contribution from new initiatives like Gifts or Graph Search, we don't see any near-term catalysts for the stock," Doshi wrote in his note.

Doshi also expressed concerns that mobile ads, which monetize at a lower rate than desktop, are cannibalizing desktop ads.

On the conference call, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, COO Sheryl Sandberg, and CFO David Ebersman warned that new initiatives, like Gifts and Graph Search would not lead to material increases in revenue ( Graph Search is still in beta), but that over time, these could be big businesses. That's not enough for a stock that's trading at 36 times forward earnings, and has gained over 40% in the past three months.

FB Chart FB data by YCharts

Companies that are in heavy investment mode, a la Facebook, take a longer-term approach to managing the business, and want to see these investments play out over a period of years, not quarter to quarter, as Wall Street so desperately wants. Google ( GOOG) experienced this when it was a newly public company, and the story is no different now. Just the names have been replaced.

In an interview with TheStreet, CFO Ebersman said the company ramped up expenses 82% year-over-year and plans to increase them even further as Facebook invests in its people and infrastructure. "Our key issues are investments in our people Facebook ended the quarter with over 4,600 employees and infrastructure," Ebersman said, over the phone. "We are investing in engagement and monetization, and we're showing the results."

One of those initiatives is Gifts. Facebook recently unveiled a way to send gifts to your friends on the platform, most in the $30 and under price range. BMO Capital Markets analyst Daniel Salomon had been expecting Gifts would help Payments revenue, which came in at $256 million for the quarter. "We had been looking to Gifts for help, but management tapped-down expectations, and we have lowered our revenue estimates for it," Salomon noted, in a research report. He downgraded shares to "market perform" with a $32 price target. On the call, Zuckerberg tempered expectations for Gifts, but Salomon noted that any expectations for Gifts to improve would make him get more "proactive" on the stock.

Not all was negative for the quarter, though as Facebook beat estimates, led by higher advertising revenues. The social networking giant reported non-GAAP earnings of 17 cents a share on $1.585 billion in revenue, as the company's top line jumped 40%. Revenue from advertising was up 41% to $1.33 billion, accounting for 84% of total revenue. Mobile revenue represented 23% of advertising revenue in the fourth quarter, up from 14% in the third quarter.

Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expected Facebook to earn 15 cents a share on sales of $1.53 billion in the fourth quarter.

Citi's Doshi noted that the company's mobile revenue run-rate is now $1 billion plus for the year. On the conference call, Sandberg noted that Facebook Exchange (FBX) is not yet available on mobile. "We think FB is showing revenue acceleration due to a mobile pricing tailwind, while other companies, such as Google, are facing mobile pricing headwinds," she said.

Jeffries analyst Brian Pitz believes that FBX could be a huge driver of revenue over the next twelve months. "During 2012, we believe Facebook will generate close to $4B in revenue off its standard display ad units, which appear on the right side of the page (aka the right rail). This is the same inventory that will be sold on FBX. FBX will allow real-time-bidding (RTB), and will also enable retargeting. Retargeting ads will generate CPC/CPA multiples higher than the ads they displace," Pitz wrote in a note. He downgraded Facebook to "hold," taking down the price target to $30 from $32.

Facebook is undoubtedly in heavy investment mode right now, and has tapered expectations for its new initiatives, including FBX, Gifts, Graph Search, etc. While Wall Street is worried about the short term, Zuckerberg and his team are looking at the long term. Considering that the CEO has taken Facebook from being a hang out for college kids in 2004 into a $60+ billion business in 2013, I would say he probably knows what he's doing.

Interested in more on Facebook? See TheStreet Ratings' report card for this stock.

-- Written by Chris Ciaccia in New York

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