At the moment, Facebook, Inc. (NASDAQ:FB) is one of the most interesting stocks on the market. FB stock unquestionably is cheap relative to past growth, trading at under 18 times 2019 earnings-per-share estimates — and closer to 16x, backing out the company’s net cash.
Of course, there’s a cloud over Facebook at the moment. As Tom Taulli wrote this week, the company’s core business model is under attack. Revelations about the distribution and usage of Facebook’s user data has driven headlines in the media and led to criticism from politicians and regulators, and even Silicon Valley rivals.
So the case for FB stock comes down to one simple argument: will this crisis pass? And while regulators and politicians will make noise, the only group that can answer that question is Facebook users. Forced to choose, I’d bet those users forgive Facebook for its sins — and that Facebook stock resumes its upward climb at some point. But there’s a real risk here — and little reason to go rushing in to try and time the bottom.
Facebook’s Problems Continue
It’s worth remembering amid the onslaught of news that the concerns surrounding Facebook stock didn’t just begin with the Cambridge Analytica revelations. Facebook changed its News Feed settings back in January to improve the user experience, a move the company admitted at the time had the potential to lessen engagement.
Obviously, the current environment is different. In Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation is on the way, which will impact how Facebook and other companies like Alphabet Inc (NASDAQ:GOOGL) collect and manage user data. In the US, consistent revelations about the use of Facebook by Russian operatives have put the company in the crosshairs of anti-Trump voters and activists.
Still, there’s no clear path at the moment for regulators to have a significant impact on Facebook’s business. Officials in the U.S. and the United Kingdom have called for hearings. In Indonesia, a cabinet member threatened to shut down the platform down if user privacy was breached. But looking forward, that kind of talk is unlikely to lead to much in the way of action. Facebook is an unlikely candidate for, say, an antitrust suit, and in most developed countries shutting down or limiting the platform would require new laws.
All told, I tend to agree with Facebook bulls who argue regulatory risk is overblown. But that’s not the only risk that could affect Facebook stock.
All About Users for FB Stock
Without some dramatic legal or political move, the risk to Facebook from the current scandals is left to its users. And it’s a fascinating question as to whether those users plan to leave.
There’s been plenty of complaints. #DeleteFacebook trended on the Twitter Inc (NYSE:TWTR) platform. Users no doubt were aware, to some extent, that Facebook collected data — but the recent revelations may have reminded them just how much, and how it’s used. And with Snap Inc (NYSE:SNAP) reportedly already taking younger users from Facebook, politically-active older users may depart as well.
At the moment, a mass exodus still seems unlikely. A Deutsche Bank AG (USA) (NYSE:DB) survey showed minimal intent to leave the platform. Snapchat has redesigned its platform to attract older users — but, so far, it doesn’t appear to be working. I’d be more worried that Facebook users were set to depart, but the problem is that there’s nowhere else to go.
That doesn’t mean Facebook is out of the woods. The company’s responses continue to be tone-deaf. There is likely greater risk overseas, where free speech protections are less robust — and international growth is a big part of the long-term story here. Major international companies remain uncomfortable with digital advertising. Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) is ramping up its advertising business.
And, in the near-term, the news for Facebook is likely to be negative. First quarter earnings next month should be strong — until then, investors may stay rattled. And until then — at least — I’d want to see the environment surrounding Facebook settle before making a firm decision on FB stock.
As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.