Facebook: The List of Incompetents

By Felix Salmon
May 23, 2012

It’s going to be a long time before the various lawsuits shake themselves out, but one thing’s already clear with respect to the Facebook IPO: absolutely no one has come out of it looking good. It’s worth going down the List of Incompetence here, because regardless of whether any of this was illegal, there are a lot of extremely well-compensated people who, to use a technical term, screwed the pooch on this one.

Top of that list, frankly, is Facebook CFO David Ebersman. The WSJ’s account of his central role in the offering is reasonably definitive: a lot of decisions normally outsourced to banks in the markets were made, in this case, by a tech-company executive in Menlo Park.

Ebersman didn’t make one big mistake, he made three. Firstly, as CFO, it was his job to accurately forecast Facebook’s second-quarter figures, and give the company’s banks a good feel for where they would come in. He failed so badly that he was forced to re-file the IPO prospectus just days before the deal came to market, and to whisper in his bankers’ ears that they should probably cut their forecasts for the company’s revenues.

There’s no excuse for getting that wrong, but if there was an excuse, it would be that Ebersman was too focused on the year-long process of managing an awesome IPO. Ha! He screwed that up, too, of course — not least by upsizing the deal at the last minute, raising the number of shares being sold by 25%. In hindsight, that was a very bad idea. But then, after that, he made his third major mistake: he priced the deal for perfection, at $38 per share, even as big institutional investors — the only ones who knew about the new revenue forecasts — were saying that they had no real desire to own the stock at more than $32 per share. When you’re selling $16 billion of stock, the marginal price-setters are always going to be institutions, rather than price-insensitive retail investors willing to buy Facebook on name recognition alone. And those institutions were never really willing to provide a strong bid above $38.

While most of the blame at Facebook’s end should properly be shouldered by Ebersman, that doesn’t mean Mark Zuckerberg can be let off the hook entirely. It’s his company: the buck stops with him. And he did the IPO no favors at all. First, he insisted on an unprecedented level of individual control over a $100 billion public company; institutional investors never like that. And secondly, he clearly viewed Wall Street and its investors with thinly-disguised contempt, slouching into IPO meetings — when he bothered to turn up at all — in his hoodie, and signally failing to provide the outward-facing leadership that investors crave. Zuckerberg’s refusal to play the Wall Street game is admirable, in some respects — but at the same time is completely inconsistent with a desire to sell $16 billion of shares at a $104 billion valuation.

The third member of Facebook’s leadership team who deserves some blame here is Sheryl Sandberg, the COO, and the person whose job it is to help Zuckerberg navigate the external world. Sandberg also conveniently recused herself from many IPO decisions, which doesn’t seem like a very good idea in retrospect. Either she had too much faith in Ebersman and Zuckerberg to do the right things, and should have been much more involved — or else she was deeply involved, behind the scenes, and therefore responsible for some significant part of the resulting fiasco.

Facebook’s board members and investors look very bad here, too, coming off much more short-term greedy than long-term greedy. Many of them cashed out in the IPO, in a clear sign that they had little faith in the share price going forwards. The board’s job has historically been to rubber-stamp Zuckerberg’s decisions, and to provide him with advice as and when he asks for it. Now, however, the board has a fiduciary responsibility towards all of Facebook’s investors, including the ones who bought in at $45 per share. But there’s no sign that anybody on the board saw the new investors in Facebook as anything more than muppets.

On the Wall Street side of things, the shame list is topped, indubitably, by Morgan Stanley’s technology banker Michael Grimes. He worked hand-in-glove with Ebersman, and all of Ebersman’s decisions can be considered Grimes’s decisions as well. More generally, it was Morgan Stanley’s job to understand exactly what the real demand was for Facebook shares — to sound out investors and price the company just a little bit below what the market was willing to pay. And there’s no doubt that Morgan Stanley failed miserably in that job.

And then there’s the whole scandal of the buried revenue forecasts: the way that Morgan Stanley whispered the new numbers in select clients’ ears, without ever letting the broader investing public know about the downgrade. If you want to develop a reputation as an untrustworthy bank which plays favorites and leaves the little guy out to dry, you could hardly do so in a more effective manner.

The other banks in the deal — JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, and the rest — don’t deserve quite as much blame as Morgan Stanley, but their actions were more or less identical — they all downgraded their forecasts in secret, and they all went along with the size and pricing of the deal, in return for multi-million-dollar fees. If you bought your Facebook IPO stock from Goldman, you’re going — rightly — to blame Goldman first and foremost if they didn’t tell you about their downgraded forecast. And more generally this deal goes to prove that Wall Street acts very much like a cartel: all the banks behaved in an identical manner, and not one was willing to make a fuss or walk away from a bad deal. They all got stars and dollar signs in their eyes, and behaved like fools as a result.

Then, of course, there’s the Nasdaq. Read Nick Carlson’s interview with an anonymous hedge-fund manager for some of the gorier details here, but in general anything that Nasdaq could mess up, it did mess up. In short: the stock never opened at 11am, as planned, because Nasdaq’s computers weren’t up to snuff. There was a five-minute delay, and then there was a second, 25-minute delay, during which time Nasdaq switched over to a second computer system.

The whole thing turned into a complete disaster. The second computer system didn’t work as planned, and there was an enormous amount of confusion — which still hasn’t been cleared up, in some cases — about where and whether various investors actually managed to sell their stock. As a rule, if you placed an order between 11:05 and 11:30 on Friday, you’re probably in a world of pain today, and you might be relying on the Nasdaq to make you whole for your losses: while you thought you were selling at $42, you might not actually have been able to sell until the shares were at $38 or even less. It seems that the opening price of $42.05 was based only on orders received before 11:05, and ignored all orders after that time, most of which were at much lower levels. Which helps to explain the initial and chaotic plunge in the stock price.

Naturally, when a stock is behaving like that, it takes a very brave investor indeed to dive in and go long at a frothy valuation. And so it’s entirely reasonable to blame the Nasdaq for the failure of the Facebook IPO. It’s their job to get this kind of thing right; instead, they got it spectacularly wrong. End of story.

Finally, there are all the investors, including that anonymous hedge-fund manager, who bought into the IPO even though they knew that the valuation was incredibly high, and are now casting around for someone else to blame for their losses. It’s impossible to feel any sympathy for these people — especially institutions who had no appetite for stock at more than $32 per share, but put in large orders at $38 anyway just because they were counting on Morgan Stanley to give them a nice opening-day pop. If you pay 100X earnings for a hyped internet stock on its first day of trading and then you lose money, you frankly had it coming.

All of which means that the winners in this whole game were you and I: the quiet skeptical masses who simply sat back and watched the farce unfold. In the game of Facebook IPO, it turns out, the only winning move was not to play.

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