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Can This Goldman Superstar Save Twitter?

By Alex Dumortier, CFA – Jul 1, 2014 at 7:00PM

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A star Goldman banker joins Twitter as chief financial officer.

As we head toward Friday's June employment report, strong manufacturing and auto sales data seemingly helped lift U.S. stocks to a new record high on Tuesday, with the benchmark S&P 500 gaining 0.7%, while the narrower Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI 0.41%) rose 0.8%. The technology-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index (^IXIC 0.31%) was up 1.1%.

Shares of Twitter (TWTR) outperformed the Nasdaq today, rising 2.6%, on news of a high-profile hire, as the company announced that it's bringing on Anthony Noto as chief financial officer. Noto is a former Goldman Sachs banker who is said to have been responsible for winning Goldman the lead manager mandate to take Twitter public last year.

Source: Twitter.

Noto is the latest in a series of management changes at the top of Twitter, as CEO Dick Costolo struggles to clearly define Twitter's position in the social-media landscape and to counter slowing user growth. Ali Rowghani stepped down from his role as chief operating officer last month following a disagreement with Costolo regarding the company's direction. In April, Twitter named Google Maps honcho Daniel Graf as vice president of consumer product, following the departure of Michael Sippey. In May, the company replaced its head of engineering. Note that each of these positions has an important input in defining what Twitter becomes.

In all this commotion, you may be wondering what's happening to the former CFO, Mike Gupta? He will take on the role of senior vice president, strategic investments -- expect him to direct Twitter's investments in technology start-ups, similar to the role that Google Ventures plays at Google. This would seem to be an ideal role for a technology investment banker like Noto, who was co-head of Goldman's powerful technology, media, and telecoms group. However, the new man has a more pressing mission: Selling Twitter's story to Wall Street.

Noto is credited with pulling off a successful initial public offering, avoiding the missteps that plagued Facebook's offering; however, following a massive early run-up, Twitter's shares have suffered a brutal correction as investors have begun to question the microblogging platform's ability to achieve a similar scale to Facebook. Twitter's stock has fallen by a third year-to-date.

Noto will be well compensated for his trouble. According to a filing submitted to the SEC on Tuesday, his annual salary is a relatively modest (by the standards of a Goldman partner) $250,000, but he is also receiving a one-time stock award of 1.5 million shares and a one-time option grant to purchase 500,000 shares, both of which vest over a four-year period. Given that Twitter's market value increased by some $630 million today, one might be tempted to say that the hire has already paid for itself several times over.

So, will Noto be able to save Twitter? That assumes the company needs to be saved in the first place, but it isn't broken. The problem, as I see it, is simply that Wall Street has cottoned on to the fact that Twitter will never achieve Facebook-type user numbers; meanwhile, Twitter's executive management remains adamant about chasing the rainbow of mainstream acceptance and a billion-user global franchise. Unfortunately, Noto's first tweet trumpeting his appointment suggests he has already drunk the Twitter punch:

Although one could pass this off as simply as positive affirmation to mark an exciting new career opportunity, it appears emblematic of Twitter's fundamental misunderstanding regarding what it is ... and what it is not. Twitter is not #indispensable, and its structure and grammar do not lend itself to reaching "every person in the world" -- far from it.

Twitter is an unusual and, in many ways, fascinating tool that is having a profound impact in some sectors (media, for example). It looks like it could become a very decent business. However, it will be more effective in its relationship with Wall Street once it gives up on the pipe dream of global domination and works to maximize its true potential as a niche service. It seems that achieving that will require more organizational self-awareness than Twitter is able to muster at this time.

Alex Dumortier, CFA, has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Goldman Sachs, Google (A and C shares), and Twitter and owns shares of Apple and Google (A and C shares). We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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