Facebook IPO may bypass Wall Street bankers

Could the social-networking site handle a massive offering all by itself?

By Jonathan Berr Nov 30, 2011 12:40PM
Image: Stock market Traders (© Photodisc/SuperStock)Facebook's $10 billion initial public offering, expected next year, is the among the most eagerly anticipated deals in recent memory. Wall Street bankers, though, may be sitting on the sidelines.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Facebook chief financial officer David Ebersman "has told bankers he is skeptical about the value bankers could bring to such a deal." That nugget, courtesy of anonymous sources, was designed to make the masters of the universe who arrange multi-billion dollar deals quake in their $695 Gucci loafers. It probably worked.

The global IPO market remains sluggish despite the publicity surrounding such high-profile deals as LinkedIn (LNKD) and Groupon (GRPN). Renaissance Capital recently noted the third quarter was "the least active quarter of global issuance" since the third quarter of 2009. To make matters worse, shares of LinkedIn and Groupon are both down by double digits for the year.

The Facebook IPO would be a huge payday for bankers -- at least $200 million in fees --and would be a coup for whatever firm landed the deal. Facebook is well-aware of this reality and may be using the leak to the Journal to negotiate lower fees with Goldman Sachs (GS), seen as the likely lead underwriter given its ties to Facebook.

Facebook is reportedly considering raising $10 billion in its IPO at a valuation of more than $100 billion. It would be one of the largest offerings in history.

The social networking site can use Google's (GOOG) 2004 IPO as a model. Google raised a few eyebrows when it announced it would sell shares through a Dutch auction open to all qualified bidders. As the Journal noted, that process did have its issues. "Just before its IPO was priced, Google cut the proposed price range and reduced the number of shares being sold," according to the newspaper.

Demand for Facebook shares is so strong that the Palo Alto, Calif. company could probably unload them without the assistance of bankers. The Journal noted that Facebook's Ebersman has "pressed the flesh" with institutional investors. But this raises many questions. 

For one thing, would Facebook market and underwrite its IPO itself? That would seem to be an expensive hassle Facebook would probably rather avoid. Even Google needed Wall Street's help to go public and had a whopping 31 underwriters for its IPO. 

Even if it decided to do it alone, Facebook can't avoid Wall Street entirely. Part of the IPO process involves the roadshow where companies tout their stocks as if they were prized pigs at a county fair. Many who attend these gatherings are fund managers with ties to -- you guessed it -- Wall Street.

What sometimes gets lost in the discussion of a Facebook IPO is the fact that it does not need to happen. My former employer, Bloomberg, is a fabulously successful private media company. Last year, it had about $7 billion in revenue. 

Also, Facebook, unlike other tech companies who either went public or plan to do so, makes lots of money. According to published reports, the company earned $500 million in net income in the first half of the year. It's no wonder that Facebook's valuation has hit the lofty $100 million level.

--Follow Jonathan Berr on Twitter @jdberr.



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