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The 3 Mistakes Facebook Investors Are Making

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Why do smart people make stupid (money) mistakes? That's one of the questions I've been asking myself constantly as I witness the episode of mass lunacy that is the Facebook (Nasdaq: FB  ) IPO. Thankfully, behavioral economics provides some answers that standard economics can't. Here are three psychological biases that have manifestly driven numerous investors to buy Facebook shares (or to consider buying them today). Buyer beware!

Mistake 1: familiarity bias ("buy what you know")
Familiarity bias pushes people to favor investing in companies with which they have some degree of, er, familiarity. Here's an egregious example lifted from recent headlines: Chesapeake Energy employees' retirement-fund assets were invested in the company's stock to the tune of 38%.

At the end of March, Facebook had 188 million users in the U.S. and Canada. Given a combined population for both countries of 350 million, that means the odds are better than one-half that you are one of them (in fact, they may be significantly higher since you're reading this on the Web). There are few companies I can think of that have come public in recent memory with that sort of brand awareness and mass user appeal (Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) and Visa are the two other best examples I can come up with within the past decade).

Many people use Facebook and they enjoy it; it's no surprise, then, that the level of interest from individual investors for Facebook shares was, by all accounts, unbridled. But blindly following Peter Lynch's recommendation to "buy what you know" isn't a prescription for success. I have to agree with Eric Savitz, when he wrote in Forbes on March 12:

"While Fidelity's Lynch was no slouch in the stock-picking game, I'd advise you to know what you buy instead of buying what you know. What I know is this: There is simply no logic to paying 100 times earnings for Facebook when there are far cheaper bets on the future of the digital economy."

Mistake 2: anchoring ("that number there!")
Anchoring is a form of bias where beliefs rely heavily on one piece of information, perhaps because it was available first, and are not sufficiently adjusted afterward. ("Behavioral Finance: Quo Vadis?," Journal of Applied Finance, Fall/Winter 2008.)

What are Facebook investors anchoring on? I suspect many of the investors who bought the stock in the days following the IPO and many who are now thinking about buying the stock are anchoring on the IPO offer price (or the first day's closing price, which was nearly identical).

The reasoning goes something like this: "It was priced at $38, and I've got the opportunity to buy it at better than a 20% discount relative to that level. Bargain!" And that would be entirely sensible reasoning ... if the people who adopted it had verified that Facebook shares were fairly valued at $38. The trouble is that, far from representing fair value, the IPO offer price flagrantly overvalued the business, to such a degree that a 20% discount hardly puts a dent in it.

On the Sunday that followed the IPO, I wrote that "a prudent speculator would require a wide discount to even the bottom of the IPO's pricing range [$34]." I stand by that statement, and I'll be a bit more specific: By "wide," I mean something along the lines of 50%. Apply that to $34, and you can start looking at the stock when it hits $17. Even at that price, it would remain speculative.

Mistake 3: disposition effect ("it's not a loss if I don't sell")
Congratulations -- you were part of a historic IPO when you bought shares on Facebook's first day of trading! You paid somewhere between $38 and $45 for your shares, and now you're sitting on a substantial unrealized loss, and you just can't bring yourself to eat the loss by selling your shares.

You're not alone. In falling prey to the disposition effect, investors are much less willing to realize losses than gains. Roughly one-third less likely, in fact, if we go by a study by Professor Terrance Odean of University of California, Berkeley, who looked at the trading activity between 1987 and 1993 of 10,000 households with accounts at a large discount brokerage.

A stock's long-term performance starting from any given point in time – which is what any genuine investor should be concerned with -- is independent of whether the stock is a profitable or losing position in your portfolio. If you own Facebook shares, the only thing that should dictate your decision today to sell, hold, or buy more is an assessment of the shares' likely future performance.

Know thyself
Know yourself before you consider buying Facebook (or any other) shares. If you are looking for exposure to social media, one company has been executing brilliantly on a business model that is far better established than Facebook's. Find out why our senior technology analyst says Forget Facebook -- Here's The Tech IPO You Should Be Buying. This report is entirely free of charge and available for a limited time only, so claim your copy today.

Fool contributor Alex Dumortier holds no position in any company mentioned. Check out his holdings and a short bio; you can follow him on Twitter. The Motley Fool owns shares of Facebook, Google, and Chesapeake Energy. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google, Visa, and Chesapeake Energy. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

Read/Post Comments (8) | Recommend This Article (28)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2012, at 10:57 PM, PEOPLE67 wrote:

    it´s funny read, buy fb shares is a mistake, and in the end of the article read, motley fool owns shares of facebook.

  • Report this Comment On June 05, 2012, at 11:43 PM, earthunit wrote:

    Another day, another FB basher.

  • Report this Comment On June 06, 2012, at 7:50 AM, sept2749 wrote:

    FB as big time potential but at the moment I think someone got a little carried away. I believe they were counting on people buying what they know instead of knowing what they are buying as you put it so nicely. Very good article - makes a lot of sense.

    Thank you

  • Report this Comment On June 06, 2012, at 8:18 AM, MoneyWorksforMe wrote:

    I agree that we need to see this come back to at least the upper teens before its valuation begins to make any sense, even from a speculative standpoint. Current earnings, and earnings growth estimates are far too low to justify such a high forward p/e. As the business stands, I don't see how it can really surprise to the upside in the short to medium term at these price levels.

  • Report this Comment On June 06, 2012, at 11:50 AM, StopPrintinMoney wrote:

    it's actually one mistake.

  • Report this Comment On June 06, 2012, at 5:19 PM, PedalHard41 wrote:

    Simple... the master marketing machine Goldman Sux can sell anything, and does so often.... FB opening day they unloaded $1billion worth. 1st and foremost FB is a social media cult with zero value for any investor.

  • Report this Comment On June 06, 2012, at 9:28 PM, Archaeologist77 wrote:

    interesting, but what is odd is how highly people are speaking of LinkedIn...basically an online resume portal...? are they for real? I have a resume on LinkedIn and it didn't help me get a job and I have degrees or degree-in-process from three of the Top 100 universities in the world.

    Comparing LinkedIn to Facebook is like comparing to the Internet itself; Facebook is an entirely different animal.

    what I think is going on in the investment community is that a lot of early investors in Facebook made a lot of money from the IPO and others who could have or didn't have the opportunity to invest as an early investor are angry that they couldn't cash in on the IPO...and as in schoolyard King of the Castle they are trying to make sure Facebook loses its crown as King.

    The best comment I've read is "it's too early to judge." We have to see the 2nd quarter results for Facebook and then watch.

    At this point I am not happy with Nasdaq for having forced me to by 20 shares that I didn't want, my concerns aren't about Facebook. I did place a limit order for the IPO that was then automatically cancelled by my discount broker on IPO day because trading ended before it was executed, but which was then executed on the Monday by Nasdaq.

    I have no other course of action except to hope the stock rises...granted this is a small loss but still a loss at this time.

  • Report this Comment On June 06, 2012, at 10:33 PM, TMFAleph1 wrote:


    There is no comparison between Facebook and LinkedIn; right now, LinkedIn is a *much* better business.

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