Facebook earnings report fails to quell concerns

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 89 views 

Facebook Inc. fell in late trading after its first earnings report as a public company reflected slowing sales and narrower profit margins, failing to assuage the concerns over growth that have sliced shares 29%.

Operating margin, excluding certain costs, was 43% in the second quarter, a decline from 53% a year earlier, amid a fourfold surge in sales and marketing expenses.

Revenue rose 32%, the slowest pace on record, and payments-related sales were $192 million, below the $199.3 million average prediction from analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.

Facebook executives led by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, addressing analysts for the first time since the company’s May 17 initial public offering, issued no growth forecasts and said little else to reassure investors who fret that the company is overvalued. The largest social network is adding users faster than it can generate ad sales, the company said, reiterating remarks it made on the cusp of the IPO.

“It has become a show-me story,” said Nabil Elsheshai, a senior equity research analyst at Thrivent Financial. “The problem is deceleration, and there wasn’t anything from an outlook perspective that would indicate that is going to stop.”

Facebook shares slumped 12% to as low as $23.75 after the results were released. It had dropped 8.5% to $26.85 as of the close in New York.

Sales increased to $1.18 billion, Menlo Park, Calif.-based Facebook said in a statement today (July 25). That compares with an average estimate of $1.16 billion, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Monthly active users rose to 955 million, exceeding the 950.1 million prediction by analysts surveyed by Bloomberg.

The revenue increase was dwarfed by a more than fourfold increase in spending on marketing and sales, which surged to $392 million. The net loss was of $157 million, or 8 cents a share. Profit excluding certain costs was 12 cents a share.

Today’s report and conference call — the mostly highly anticipated earnings release since Google Inc.’s inaugural figures in 2004 — gave management its first chance since May to make a case that Facebook deserves a higher price relative to earnings than 98% of the Standard & Poor’s 500.

“A little bit of earnings guidance, a little bit of optimism about future performance would have been nice,” said Jordan Rohan, analyst at Stifel Nicolaus & Co. in New York, who has a hold rating on Facebook. “Facebook trades at a premium to many companies, including Google, and is only growing at a slightly faster pace than companies like Google.”

Shareholders sought assurances that the company can keep users engaged amid rising competition from Twitter Inc. and Google and that it can overcome challenges making money from advertising on mobile devices.

Chief among concerns is Facebook’s ability to make money from users on handsets. Facebook said in May that sales growth wasn’t keeping pace with user expansion as more members accessed the service with mobile phones.

“Ad impressions continued the recent trend of growing more slowly than users as more of our usage is on mobile devices,” Chief Financial Officer David Ebersman said on the conference call. “This trend is particularly true in markets such as the U.S., where smartphone use is expanding rapidly.”

Facebook has had little time to gain traction in mobile advertising, having just announced its inaugural mobile-advertising platform in February.

Facebook is making progress in some areas, including online display advertising, which includes photos and other graphical elements. Facebook will have 16.8% of the U.S. market this year, after grabbing the top spot from Yahoo! Inc. last year, according to EMarketer Inc. in New York. Google will have 16.5%, up from 13.8% last year and Yahoo’s share will be 9.1%, down from 10.8%.

Users are also spending more time on the service. Average time spent online increased 5.1% to 400.2 minutes, or more than six-and-a-half hours, after a gain of less than 1% the previous month in the U.S., according to researcher ComScore Inc.