Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Facebook Multiplier: Economic vs. Market Valuation

I get the social part of it. I just found a friend of mine from high school, spent 10 minutes with my wife perusing pictures to put on my profile, and even reviewed 20 results for “Sambucci” including two in London, one in Glasgow, and one in Ecuador. I don’t get the 100x revenues to determine its $15 billion valuation.

Facebook’s foray into tracking member purchases went awry. Advertising dollars reach their ceiling quickly unless you’re Google.

The Facebook marketplace is less than overwhelming. There are 2598 items for sale in Silicon Valley, CA at the time of this posting. When I click “For Sale", the first page results include a 5"x5" cheese cake for $50, Oracle SQL/DBA Training for $360, and a 2007 Hybrid Ford Escape 4WD for $26,000.


A marketplace is a place of aggregation where economic activity transpires. On the Internet, eBay is the typical example - an established marketplace with buyers and sellers. Defining the market more loosely, the same occurs when someone uses Google or another search engine to find a product that they eventually purchase. Members join Facebook for social networking, not to directly engage in economic activity.

With no indications that Facebook’s revenues are rising exponentially, it’s likely that direct revenues Facebook will generate for itself will remain relatively low compared to the true online marketplaces like eBay (~ $7 bln in 2007) and Google (~$15+ bln in 2007).

If this is indeed true, they why use Facebook’s revenues as the metric for valuing the company (currently at 100x revenues according to Microsoft’s recent investment)? Maybe there’s a more accurate way…

Let’s assume that because I’m a Facebook member, I meet up with a long lost high school friend in New York City and have dinner. It’s fair to assume that this happens frequently with many Facebook members – connecting with friends either directly or in part because of Facebook – which results in economic activity of some sort taking place (a $100 dinner in this case).

By taking this approach, we can then begin to connect a certain amount of economic activity attributable to Facebook. Some members are “power” users and others are more cursory like me. But overall, there is likely some average amount of economic activity per member that can be measured. Economists use “mulipliers” to calculate these “down line effects” of some event or activity. (In fact, the consumption multiplier is the rationale for the recent tax cuts approved by Congress and President Bush.)

If we can quantify these economic activities per Facebook member, then why not use a “Facebook Multiplier” to determine the firm’s value? This multiplier is not related to the revenues of Facebook. Instead, the newly-created revenues of other market participants as a result of Facebook existing become the determining factor to establish Facebook’s economic value to the market. Using the multiplier establishes a true intrinsic value for the firm, not an arbitrary market value as was done with Microsoft’s investment in Facebook.

This proposed multiplier may indeed show that Facebook’s firm value is indeed 100x revenues, but not because we use Facebook’s revenues as a basis for arriving at the valuation. Instead, Facebook is valued based on its contribution of total economic activity. This multiplier can be justified going forward because of the lock-in effect of Facebook, and possibly the growth of the multiplier as Facebook members utilize Facebook more frequently.

This creates a clear divide between Facebook’s economic value (its contribution to the economy as a whole) and its shareholder value (market value). To the displeasure to future Facebook shareholders, the multiplier approach values Facebook on the total revenues that it creates in the general economic, not revenues that it collects as a participant in the market.

The result? Facebook’s economic value is different than its market value. In fact, its economic value is greater than its market value. We assume that shareholders value a firm based on future earnings due to them as a part owner of the company. Shareholders that purchase shares of Facebook based on the market valuation of $15 billion established by Microsoft will be sorely disappointed if the firm’s personal revenue growth of Facebook remains at its current level.

In the end, I’m not contesting that Facebook is worth $15 billion. It could be even more than that. I just disagree that Facebook’s market value is $15 billion. The firm may hold an economic value of $15 billion with the resulting multiplier effect, with the market value falling far short of this number.

(Also consider that perhaps Microsoft established a $15 billion market valuation for Facebook to artificially inflate the market price to other would-be suitors…)

Caveat emptor.


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