Is Mark Zuckerberg Throwing Away Your Money?

Mark Zuckerberg is spending Facebook's capital rapidly and possibly recklessly. Should you be involved?

David Eller
David Eller
Apr 1, 2014 at 5:00PM
Technology and Telecom

After seeing another week of questionable projects and acquisitions with no apparent ties to profit growth, Facebook seems to have jumped the shark. For those of you who weren't around, Happy Days was one of the most popular TV shows in the 1970's, consistently ranking in the top 30 TV shows by Nielsen

Facebook's (NASDAQ:FB) recently announced acquisitions have as much to do with social advertising as a 1950's greaser does with trick water skiing. On top of that, they don't seem to contribute much to growth, profitability, or strategic positioning. Why is Facebook being so aggressive with new projects now? In six months, will its stock price be worth less than it is today?

On March 27, Zuckerberg disclosed on the Facebook blog that the connectivity lab is trying to build drones, satellites, and lasers to deliver the Internet to everyone. While this is a noble goal, is it personal or professional? Again, the venture has nothing to do with social advertising. As shareholders are investing for retirement, is rational allocation of capital something they should have to worry about?  

Google (NASDAQ:GOOGL) has invested significant amounts of capital in seemingly obscure ventures, some of which contributed to the bottom line and some which seemed more focused on doing no evil. Remember the goats? For investors, the saving grace has been Google's core business. The profit from Google's Adwords business is great enough to funds these projects without high expectations for success. If one turns into a jackpot like YouTube, then it's a bonus. The YouTube acquisition resulted in a substantial advertising business, but self-driving cars are still awaiting their day. It's hit or miss, but the strength of the core business allows for flexibility.

If you're going to spend like Google, you'd better earn like Google
If Google's paid search business didn't provide stable excess income, shareholders would have sold the stock violently. However, Google's superior search engine produced better results than its competitors, so consumers stayed with the platform. Does Facebook have a similar competitive advantage, as people use Instagram and Twitter? If Facebook is going to spend like Google, it should be able to earn like Google.

Wild capital allocation raises the stakes
In the last two quarters, the market seems to have determined that Facebook broke the code of profiting from social media and its income stream would be sustainable. Dan Niles, a renowned technology investor, stated on CNBC that Facebook is his "favorite stock, bar none."  Niles has a great track record with Facebook for being negative at the IPO and positive on it early in 2013. His firm, AlphaOne, also has enough resources to have a good feel for the pulse of advertising demand. If Niles is right and demand holds up, pet projects like wiring the world, and acquisitions like Oculus should not hurt the stock.

Google didn't have to buy Bing to maintain market share
The big question as we enter into 2014 is, will Facebook remain a key destination site that attracts an increasing amount of advertising dollars? On the September earnings call, David Ebersman, the company's CFO, admitted that "we did see a decrease in daily users, specifically among younger teens." Decreasing daily teen views may not translate into lower advertising revenue today. Some of these users moved to Instagram, mobile continues to ramp, and advertising dollars flow in from new sources, so the numbers may look OK for many quarters. What does this mean for the bigger picture? Google seems to provide experiences you can't get elsewhere with Adwords and YouTube. Does Facebook?      

Summing it up
If Facebook can maintain its profit stream, investors should give it a pass for spending capital on projects that are unrelated to its core business. However, if profit growth slows, Monday morning quarterbacking over poor capital allocations will be a catalyst for professional investors to sell. This is a risk that individual investors should understand.