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What a disappointment Friday’s Facebook IPO was. How anticlimactic after all the build up and hype. What a debacle for Morgan Stanley and Nasdaq in what should have been their moment of triumph. Where to begin in this comedy of errors?
It starts with Morgan Stanley’s decision to increase the size and price of the offering. An IPO that was originally targeted at $10 billion ballooned to $16 billion. Gauging the seemingly limitless demand for shares, Morgan Stanley must have thought the market could bear the increased size. In retrospect, they dumped too many shares at too high a price into the market resulting in the IPO being dead on arrival.
As if that wasn’t enough, Nasdaq’s computerized system botched the transaction process. The 30 minute delay in opening shares was the result of their trying to resolve a bug that prevented traders from modifying and cancelling orders. The mistake they made was opening the stock without fixing the bug which led to complete chaos. Traders who had placed orders but then modified or cancelled them did not receive confirmation. Therefore, many traders did not know if they owned shares or not or at what price for about three hours. This is the trading equivalent of playing football in the dark.
My own experience appears to be typical. Shortly after Facebook started trading at about 8:30am PST, I put in a limit order for 250 shares. After a few minutes, I tried to cancel my order but received an error message. Again and again I tried to cancel my order, only to receive error messages. After about an hour, I gave up in frustration. It wasn’t until early Saturday morning when I checked my account that I saw 250 unwanted shares of FB. George Brady, a 66 year old from North Carolina, had the same experience when he tried to cancel his order for 1,000 FB shares (“Investors Pummel Facebook”, The Wall Street Journal, May 22, A1).
I sold my shares first thing Monday morning at $34. However, that left me with a $1500 loss having bought shares at $40 ($6 * 250 = $1500). Immediately after selling, I called Scottrade to complain. My local branch office was overloaded by calls and I was redirected to a call center where the broker I spoke with was completely unhelpful. A few hours later I called back, spoke with a broker in the local office, and registered a complaint. I am happy to say that Scottrade called me a few hours ago to say that my trade had been scratched. If you experienced something similar, make sure to call your broker and tell them what happened. Don’t just assume you got screwed and have to eat the loss.
The best account of what happened at the Nasdaq was by Thomas Joyce, CEO of Knight Capital, Monday morning on Squawk on the Street who called it “the worst IPO by an exchange ever”. Joyce explained the Nasdaq system failure to accommodate order modifications and cancellations which left traders, including his company, trading in the dark for almost three hours. He said that Bob Greitfeld, CEO of the Nasdaq, should not have opened trading before fixing this bug. The responsible thing to do would have been to delay the IPO to Monday instead of recklessly plowing ahead. He said the overall losses to the industry could approach $100 million. His interview was a tour de force and nobody has said it better.
But the fact that all of us are shocked and outraged that an $18 billion IPO – the 2nd largest in history – priced at 100 times earnings flopped is really more noteworthy than another instance of greed and incompetence on Wall Street. Facebook is the vanguard of a new generation of internet companies and its failure foreshadows theirs. The larger meaning of the Facebook Fiasco is the pricking of Tech Bubble 2.0.
While most of the country is in a lackluster recovery, the Silicon Valley is booming. Stimulated by the incredible new wealth of Facebook’s founders and investors, hundreds of new social networking and internet startups have been launched and funded here in the last few years. Indeed, the activity and frenzy has reached a new pitch in correlation with Facebook’s path to IPO.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that there are now 20 privately held internet companies with a valuation of more than $1 billion – compared with 18 in 1999 and 2000 (“The $1 Billion Start-up Club List, Minus Facebook”, WSJ.com Digits Blog, May 18).
The most recent new member of the club is Pinterest, an online scrapbooking site with little revenue and no profit, which raised $100 million at a $1.5 billion valuation last week. It was valued at only $200 million last October. While Pinterest has little revenue or even a business model, it had more than 20 million unique visitors last month (“Pinterest’s Rite Of Web Passage – Huge Traffic, No Revenue”, The Wall Street Journal, February 16). It wasn’t too long ago that it seemed reasonable to value companies on web traffic as a proxy for future revenues. In retrospect, we learned that those future revenues don’t always materialize. But memories are short in the Silicon Valley where all the men are strong, all the women are good looking and all the children are above average.
Some of the other hot new +$1 billion internet start ups include DropBox, which allows you to share files between all your computers and smart phones, Evernote, maker of note taking apps, and Airbnb, which has created a market for the rental of rooms in private homes. Twitter and FourSquare – also on the list – are yesterday’s news.
In addition to being worth more than $1 billion, another thing most of these companies have in common is unprofitability. Indeed, many of them scarcely have any revenues. They are valued by venture capitalists primarily on their future potential and they fund their operations through these investments.
One result of these massive infusions of venture capital is a hiring boom for technology workers in the Silicon Valley who now make more than $100,000/year on average (“Average Silicon Valley Tech Salary Passes $100,000”, The Wall Street Journal, January 24). Most of these tech workers are young men who prefer to live in San Francisco. Flush with cash from their high paying jobs, they have bid up the apartment market in the city. The average apartment rental asking price in the city in the 1st quarter was $2,633 – up 16% from $2,299 a year ago (Average Rental Asking Price SF 1Q12 Chart Attached). Studio and one bedroom apartments are seeing the strongest demand with their asking rents up 19% and 17% from the year ago period (“Renters Scramble As Market Takes Off”, The Wall Street Journal, April 19, A9B).
Rents and home prices are not the only beneficiaries of the boom. Money trickles through the entire service sector that serves these newly rich, high income, young tech entrepreneurs and employees. “I hate the word trickledown, but that’s how regional economies spread the growth”, says Steve Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy based in Palo Alto. For example, the popular Rosewood Hotel at the intersection of Sand Hill Road and 280 in Menlo Park has grown from 250 employees when it opened three years ago to 420 today. Occupancy rates as well as food and beverage sales are up and as a result Michael Casey, Rosewood’s general manager, is hiring restaurant workers and housekeepers (“IPO Wealth Trickling Through The Region”, The Wall Street Journal, April 19, A9A).
What does all this have to do with the Facebook IPO? Venture capitalists invest money in companies in order to sell them for more down the road. The two classic exits are acquisition by a large company and IPO. Wall Street is greedy, dumb and myopic but there are limits. It will buy hot, new, unproven internet companies at 100 times earnings or even without earnings as long as their stocks go up. But one thing Wall Street does not like is losing money. Once they stop going up, you will have a hard time selling them new issues. Investors have not completely forgotten 1999 and 2000. Nobody knows exactly when this moment occurs but we know that it invariably does. The Facebook Fiasco looks to me like the tipping point.