The Facebook earnings-forecast scandal

By Felix Salmon
May 22, 2012

Yesterday, it was the greenshoe — the standard feature of IPOs which also happens to be an officially-mandated case of naked short-selling. Today, it’s another odd special case: the way in which analysts’ estimates of companies’ future earnings are deliberately not made public prior to the IPO — except to select investment-banking clients who are likely to put in large orders for IPO stock.

As Henry Blodget says, this whole episode stinks. It’s almost certainly not illegal. But if you look at the Finra rules about such things, it definitely violates the spirit of the law. For instance, the rules say that Morgan Stanley analysts weren’t allowed to show Facebook their research before it was published — but they don’t say that Facebook can’t quietly whisper in Morgan Stanley’s ear that its estimates might be a bit aggressive. Obviously, there’s no need for the analysts to give Facebook advance notice of their earnings downgrade if that earnings downgrade was a direct consequence of something Facebook told them.

Similarly, Morgan Stanley isn’t allowed to publish a research report or earnings estimates for Facebook within the 40 days following the IPO. But a few days before the IPO? I guess that’s OK — even if the way the estimates were “published” meant they were only available to good friends of the bank.

More generally, the rules ignore the key point here. Retail investors, and the market as a whole, knew when Facebook had its IPO that Morgan Stanley (and JP Morgan, and Goldman Sachs) had research teams with estimates for Facebook’s future earnings. They also knew that those estimates would be made public in 40 days’ time. And if they were sophisticated enough, they probably knew that select Morgan Stanley clients were given access to the analysts and their estimates.

What they didn’t know — what they couldn’t know, because nobody told them — was that those estimates had been cut, significantly, just days before the IPO.

It’s true that retail investors weren’t buying Facebook stock on the strength of the banks earnings estimates, since they didn’t (and still don’t) know what those earnings estimates are. But here’s a material nonpublic fact about Facebook, which retail investors and everybody else in the deal deserved to know: all three underwriters cut their estimates simultaneously, in response to some very minor changes in the revised IPO prospectus.

Here’s Blodget:

Speaking as a former analyst, it seems highly unlikely to me that the vague language in the final IPO amendment would prompt all three underwriter analysts to immediately cut estimates without some sort of nod and wink from someone who knew how Facebook’s second quarter was progressing.

Hot internet stocks like Facebook are all about momentum and growth. Investors expect companies like this to surprise on the upside, occasionally; they get extremely upset, by contrast, when they surprise on the downside. Especially when such surprises come in the immediate run-up to the biggest tech IPO in the history of the world.

Why is Groupon trading 40% below its IPO price? Because people were happy to buy into ramshackle governance and accounting conventions so long as all the lines were going sharply up and to the right. But when you’re trading at massive multiples, any hint of a slowdown in growth, or of failing to meet pretty aggressive targets, is a key sell signal. These companies aren’t supported by fundamentals: they’re only supported by a general atmosphere of aggressive growth expectations and zealous bullishness. When three banks all cut their earnings estimates for Facebook on the same day, that sure ain’t bullish.

This does not mean, of course, that Facebook stock is doomed for all eternity: it could pull an Amazon, and rise sharply out of its post-IPO slump. But this does mean that shareholders should not expect much in the way of transparency or full honesty from a company which is controlled by Mark Zuckerberg personally and which has deliberately created a dual-class share structure in order to to ensure that they can be completely ignored on all decisions. Facebook was whispering in the ears of the lead managers of its investment banks, on the understanding that the results of those whispers would remain available only to select clients until after the IPO was over. That’s not cool. And as a result the company definitely deserves the latest lurch downwards in its (still frothy) share price.

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