Microsoft Saves Face

Did you hear? Motley Fool Inside Value pick Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) thinks that Facebook is worth $15 billion!

Not quite. Microsoft is paying $240 million for a 1.6% stake in the popular social-networking website. This doesn't mean that Mr. Softy believes in the $15 billion price tag. It just wants you to think that it does.

The deal is a win-win-lose situation. Microsoft wins because it gets to keep wallpapering Facebook with its paid search ads domestically, enhancing last year's deal by now serving as the exclusive third-party ad platform on the site all over the world. Facebook wins because it's able to package Microsoft's ransom as proof -- somehow -- that it is worth $15 billion.

The losers? Those would be the people who buy into that $15 billion valuation without getting sweetheart deals in return like Microsoft. One can't dismiss the exchange of favors. Fifty-nine percent of Facebook's traffic comes from international users, and now Microsoft gets to reach them all. So $240 million isn't an investment. It's a cover charge.

On the outside of an inside joke
Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge fan of Facebook. I think it's a very valuable company. I just can't chug the Kool-Aid and parrot back some inane $15 billion valuation just because two companies went for a little mutual back-scratching.

There are two things that I am fairly certain about in life. One is that you should never ask a cactus for a lap dance. Two is that Microsoft wouldn't spend $15 billion if it had to buy Facebook whole. After all, wasn't it CEO Steve Ballmer who called social networks "faddish" earlier this month? Yes, it was.

Even in the dot-com realm where valuations can hit dizzying heights, a young company like Facebook that is just starting to monetize its traffic isn't handed a blank check. Fifteen billion dollars? Really? Do you know what that would buy you these days?

  • 11 CNET Networks (Nasdaq: CNET  ) .
  • 17 United Onlines (Nasdaq: UNTD  ) , parent of the original campus social network, Classmates.com.
  • 35 InfoSpaces (Nasdaq: INSP  ) .

I'm not saying that I wouldn't trade any of those companies -- or even all three -- for a single Facebook. I'm just saying that once you start visualizing the scale, the disparity can be overwhelming.

Hopefully we're now just months away from finding out what Facebook is really worth. Let the suckers be the ones late to the truth. Let the suckers be the ones to smack their heads as it finally dawns on them why Facebook wanted the $240 million in small, unmarked bills.

Fountain of youthful indiscretion
If anything, Microsoft got off cheap with the pocket change ransom. The original chatter had the company spending $500 million for a 5% stake at a Facebook valued at $10 billion. Then it was $1.5 billion for a 10% stake at $15 billion. Reports in recent days had Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) entering the bidding war. If you ever want to see two smart companies bid stupidly, you saw it in the battle for DoubleClick. It was close to happening again here.

Will Facebook ever be worth $15 billion or more? Sure. In time. The company is doing all of the right things lately. Opening its platform to motivated developers the way it did earlier this year is a brilliant move. But until the company files to go public and we get to mull over the financials in the prospectus, it's mostly anecdotal.

News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS  ) MySpace is still the more popular social-networking website, and News Corp. acquired MySpace's parent company for just $580 million two years ago. It has certainly appreciated in value since then, but let's lean on one last colorful anecdote. Google was willing to fork over $300 million a year to provide ads on MySpace, but it didn't make a play for Facebook? Could it be that social-networking users are consumed with connecting with their buddies to the point where ad blindness kicks in? Is it all about the adds instead of the ads?

Microsoft has little to lose with its investment. It needs to establish itself as a place where sponsors have to go to reach particular audiences. It's no fun chasing Google and Yahoo! (Nasdaq: YHOO  ) on that front.

Facebook is like Botox to Microsoft. It's a youthful injection. In the end, it's really not fooling anyone though. Buying 1.6% of Facebook isn't the story. The real deal is the 98.4% that it didn't buy.

Some cool widgets for your Facebook profile:


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