What Facebook does in first few trading days is meaningless. Media coverage is a form of celebritiosis

The major business news story this morning was the fact that Facebook fell four points or a little over 11% in its second day of trading.  It led the business pages of The New York Times and Yahoo!, Google and National Public Radio’s business news.  Here in western Pennsylvania, the political cartoonist Rob Rogers shows two kids doing their homework and their father shouting, “Why aren’t you on Facebook?…I bet your future on that stock.”

All of this posturing and conjecturing about a complete non-event is a sure sign that the business media are suffering from celebritiosis, the disease that makes sufferers read gossip columnists, go to expensive restaurants in New York or Los Angeles looking for celebrities, and use the same brand of shampoo as their favorite athlete.

Here is the pattern that the prices of virtually all initial public offerings (IPO) of hot concept and techy companies follow:

  1. The day the stock opens it either goes higher, stays the same or declines.
  2. The stock goes down significantly in the three to five days immediately following the first day.
  3. Sometimes the stock starts to climb, sometimes it stays the same, sometimes it drops more, but…
  4. Within a time period of the first 3 to 6 weeks, the stock drifts down significantly. The reason I think this precipitous early decline occurs is that people who want to buy an IPO the first day have another form of celebritiosis, and so pay up for the stock.

Let’s compare the end of the first day of trading to a low point 3-6 weeks later for some prominent recent IPOs:

Stock Opening Date & Close Date & First Big Low
Groupon 11/4/11: $26.11 11/28/11: $15.24
LinkedIn 5/19/11: $94 7/20/11: $63.71
Angie’s List 11/17/11: $16.26 11/30/11: $11.56
Zynga 12/6/11: $9.50 1/9/12: $8.00

But there’s a fifth stage called everything after that in which some of the stocks do great and some fade into oblivion. Check out what happened to these four stocks and you’ll see that this early showing predicts nothing.

In other words, what a stock does in its first day doesn’t matter. It’s going to go down within weeks after it starts trading, after which anything can happen.

Thus, after one day of trading, all we can say about Facebook is that so far it’s behaving like every other stock and that means that the stock is probably going to lose a good part of its value in the short run, like every other IPO does.

And none of that is any news.

Let’s face it. Facebook, like Apple (and Microsoft years ago), has become a celebrity company, the business version of Cher, Justin Bieber  or Snooki.  There is no doubt about it: celebrity culture has invaded the business sections of our mainstream media. The business media also extensively covered Zuckerberg’s marriage.  It makes perfect sense that the Gossip and Celebrity sections of the newspaper cover the marriage of a young and glamorous billionaire. But the front page of the business section ? And a follow story on the pre-nup the next day?

One function of celebrity news is to distract us from real news, and we couldn’t find a better example than the Facebook IPO. Media focus on whether Facebook’s stock price would have a hot run over a short and meaningless time frame crowded out coverage of what’s happening to the Facebook IPO money: it’s making a lot of people rich, which is different from providing capital for expansion and job creation.  Some of the money will be invested in the business, but a good chunk of it just pays off Zuckerberg and his early investors and employees.

But that’s not where the money stream ends.  For making Zuckerberg and his associates enormously wealthy, those who buy the stock will only have to pay 15% capital gains tax on any money they make when they sell the stock, and if they lose money they get a tax deduction.  Moreover, the people who buy the stock from its first owners contribute nothing to either Facebook or its founders; yet they get the same tax break as the first purchaser of every share of public stock. Why do they get these tax breaks when no real jobs are created, certainly none by the second and third buyers of the stock?

But the media never gets into these issues because it focuses on the triviality of the IPO’s stock price.

The bogus stock price story not only squeezes out coverage of more interesting aspects of the IPO and Facebook’s financials, it also squeezes out other, more important stories.  Neither NPR nor The Times in the national hard copy edition covered the announcement that text book publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy. (The Times did have an article online on May 21.)  The bankruptcy was never a feature business story for either Yahoo! or Google news the dozen or so times I checked after the Chapter 11 announcement came out. The reason I found out about it was because I read it in a small paragraph in the round-up column of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

It’s an interesting story because it’s a pre-packaged Chapter 11, meaning that before the filing, the publisher cut a deal with the creditors (the ones to whom the publisher owes money), who will get total ownership of the company in return for agreeing not to get paid for $3.1 billion they are owed.  Creditors go for this kind of refinancing as the only way to get their money back: if it keeps operating, Houghton Mifflin has a chance to make enough money to repay the new owners. If it went out of business, everyone would lose.

The $100 billion IPO of Facebook deserved the extensive coverage it got, but the second day coverage of Facebook’s stock price following an ordinary pattern was less important than a text book behemoth handing itself over to the banks and bondholders to whom it owes billions of dollars.  Zuckerberg’s marriage—that nonsense deserved zero coverage in the business pages.

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