LinkedIn’s toppy stock sale is better than buying

September 4, 2013

By Robert Cyran
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

LinkedIn’s toppy stock sale looks a lot better for shareholders than an overpriced buyback. The $27 billion job-focused social network is raising another $1 billion. With $900 million in cash and rising profit, it doesn’t really need the money. But when a company trades at over 1,000 times reported 2012 earnings and more than 800 times estimated earnings for this year, selling stock makes sense.

LinkedIn plans to use the funds for international expansion, product development and perhaps a small acquisition or two. But it has had no problem undertaking similar activities since it went public in 2011 and it hasn’t needed additional funds – in fact it has added to its cash hoard.

The company’s generous-looking valuation offers a better explanation for the share sale. LinkedIn’s stock price has increased fivefold since its initial public offering. Its prospects remain bright. But few companies can live up to the kind of hope implicit in price-to-earnings ratios running to four digits. Selling now allows the company to more than double its cash cushion while barely diluting existing shareholders. That’s simply prudent.

It’s also a welcome departure from the tendency of companies to sell their own stock when it’s cheap and buy when it’s expensive. As one example, the pace of share buybacks plunged in early 2009 when stock market valuations were at their post-crisis lows. LinkedIn seems to appreciate the benefit of selling high, which will give it financial flexibility for acquisitions and expansion should its stock price or the broader market tumble. Perhaps it will eventually reverse the trick and repurchase stock at a bargain basement price.

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