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Facebook, Inc. Earnings: What to Watch

By Daniel Sparks – Apr 24, 2018 at 5:45PM

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Can Facebook keep up its wild growth amid News Feed changes and its recent user-data scandal?

As earnings season continues, a host of big tech companies are about to report earnings, including Facebook (META -3.67%), Microsoft, and Apple. But Facebook will be one of the most interesting earnings reports to watch. Not only is it among the most valuable companies in the world, but it's growing at an extraordinary pace. In Facebook's fourth quarter, revenue and earnings per share jumped 47% and 83% year over year when adjusted to exclude the impact of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

In addition, Facebook's first-quarter earnings release will also be worth tuning into, given more recent items that have impacted the company. During Facebook's first quarter, the social network made a big change to its News Feed that would give greater priority to posts from friends and family. And toward the end of Q1, Facebook reported that a third-party developer had mishandled the data of millions of users -- a scandal that prompted scrutiny from Congress and an apology from Facebook. Investors will look for Facebook management to give insight into how these items are impacting its business when it shares its first-quarter results.

Ahead of Facebook's first-quarter earnings release, here's an overview of three key areas to watch.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in front of a screen on a conference stage

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg presents a 10-year plan at the F8 conference in 2016. Image source: Facebook.

1. Revenue growth

Facebook's revenue growth has been particularly strong recently, rising 47% year over year in the third and fourth quarters of 2017. This growth is up from 45% growth in Q2.

For the full year of 2017, Facebook's revenue was up 47% year over year.

But revenue growth could come down in Q1. Facebook's first-quarter top line is up against a very tough comparison. In Facebook's first quarter of 2017, revenue soared 49% year over year, driven by a 51% year-over-year jump in advertising revenue.

In addition, one of the factors behind Facebook's advertising revenue growth in its year-ago quarter -- rapidly increasing ad load -- is no longer a key driver. Investors, therefore, should expect revenue growth to decelerate in Q1; I'll be looking for revenue growth to be about 40% year over year.

Notably, Facebook said it didn't expect changes in its News Feed to negatively impact revenue during the period. So, look for management to reinforce that this was the case.

2. Profitability

Facebook provided guidance for a spectacular increase in operating expenses in 2018, estimating expenses during the year will climb by between 45% and 60% year over year. This means expense growth could surpass revenue growth and ultimately suppress profitability.

Investors should look to see how sharply expenses climb, and how this impacts the social network's profitability.

On this same note, given the heightened scrutiny of Facebook's user data, privacy, and security policies, there's a chance management could increase its guidance for planned operating expenses in 2018. For instance, management could narrow its expected range for operating expense growth to a range of 50% to 60%. However, Facebook's operating expense guidance has typically proven to be above actual expense growth. An updated outlook for higher expense growth, therefore, would be surprising.

3. User engagement

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been up-front about how recent changes to the News Feed, to prioritize posts from friends and family, would negatively impact user engagement. "Now, I want to be clear: by making these changes, I expect the time people spend on Facebook and some measures of engagement will go down," he said when announcing the changes.

A decrease in daily engagement could show up in Facebook's figures for daily active users. In Facebook's most recent quarter, daily active users on the platform were at 1.4 billion -- up 2.4% sequentially.

Facebook reports its first-quarter earnings after market close on Wednesday, April 25.

Teresa Kersten is an employee of LinkedIn and is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors; LinkedIn is owned by Microsoft. Daniel Sparks owns shares of AAPL. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends AAPL and Facebook. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on AAPL and short January 2020 $155 calls on AAPL. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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