Amidst continued angst from regulators and consumers, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) reported third-quarter 2019 results that handily bested expectations. The world's leading social media empire is still picking up users and figuring out new ways to monetize its various platforms, all the while controlling higher spending as it updates the way it manages the filtering of bad actors on the web. Facebook may be a polarizing company -- at the moment, especially in the realm of politics -- but there's no denying it's a powerful investment.

Strong numbers no matter the debate

In spite of ongoing warnings from management to expect decelerating revenue growth and higher expenses, Facebook's Q3 came in better than expected. Revenues accelerated again to 29% year over year, and earnings per share notched a big 20% rebound after the record $5 billion Federal Trade Commission fine the company absorbed in the second quarter. Monthly average users were up 8% over the same period in 2018 to 2.45 billion -- including an estimated 140 million businesses using a Facebook service.

Metric

Nine Months Ended September 30, 2019

Nine Months Ended September 30, 2018

 Change

Revenue

$49.6 billion

$38.9 billion

28%

Operating expenses

$34.5 billion

$21.8 billion

58%

Earnings per share

$3.87

$5.20

(26%)

Free cash flow

$15.8 billion

$12.0 billion

32%

Data source: Facebook.  

The results are a thin veneer over the current debate, though, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg waxed political during the earnings call in response to politicians' critique over the company's handling of political ads:

Right now, the content debate is about political ads. Should we block political ads with false statements? Should we block all political ads? Google, YouTube and most internet platforms run these same ads, most cable networks run these same ads, and of course national broadcasters are required by law to run them by FCC regulations. I think there are good reasons for this. In a democracy, I don't think it's right for private companies to censor politicians or the news. And although I've considered whether we should not carry these ads in the past and I'll continue to do so, on balance so far I've thought we should continue. Ads can be an important part of voice -- especially for candidates and advocacy groups that the media might not otherwise cover so they can get their message into debates. And it's hard to define where to draw the line. Would we really want to block ads for important political issues like climate change or women's empowerment? Instead, I believe the better approach is to work to increase transparency. Ads on Facebook are already more transparent than anywhere else. We have a political ads archive so anyone can scrutinize every ad that's run -- you can see every message, who saw it, how much was spent – and that's something that no TV or print media does.  

It's a complicated issue, one that compounds Facebook's position in the battle over how to handle data privacy. Regulators are gunning for big tech, and Facebook -- right or wrong, depending on who you ask -- has been tied to the whipping post. Consumers for their part seem to have weighed in clearly. With more users continuously signing up around the world and user engagement on the rise -- even in the U.S. where the debate is running hottest -- Facebook is doing just fine.  

Someone in the background pressing a Facebook "like" icon in the foreground.

Image source: Getty Images.

Is it still a buy?

Even in another year of polarizing opinions and bipartisan ire, this stock still looks like a buy. Fellow Fool.com contributor Sean Williams recently used the PEG ratio to explain why. Here's another reason: relative value. Based on 12-month-trailing profits, Facebook is going for 31.1 times earnings. That's not cheap. However, the figure does include the $5 billion FTC fine, which will get lapped in next year's results. Plus, though it has said revenue growth will decelerate in 2020, management's initial outlook is for north of 20% top-line expansion and operating expense growth somewhere in the high teens to low 20% range.  

Based on Wall Street analysts' consensus earnings estimates, the 12-month forward price-to-earnings ratio on Facebook stock is 21.6. That implies a roughly 30% jump next year in the bottom line. Much of that is due to the company lapping the FTC fine in 2020 it paid earlier in 2019, but expenses growing slower than revenue is also helping boost the profit outlook. Either way, Facebook's fast expansion should surpass revenue and earnings growth for the S&P 500 next year. And, for the sake of comparison, current 12-month forward price-to-earnings on the S&P 500 is 18.6.

Put simply, Facebook shares are still a growth-at-a-value play, and a far better value than the average large-cap stock on the U.S. markets. Granted, there is political risk priced in as the company remains in regulator and politician crosshairs, but I'm still a buyer for the long haul.