Why Is Facebook's IPO Price So Modest?

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Update (3:40 p.m.): A few minutes after WSJ's scoop, Facebook announced in an amendment to its S-1 filing that they'd be offering180,000,000 shares of its Class A common stock and the selling stockholders are offering 157,415,352 shares of Class A common stock." The company also said it anticipates "that the initial public offering price will be between $28.00 and $35.00 per share." Zuckerberg will personally sell 30 million shares for about a billion dollars. Sean Parker won't sell any.

Investors gritted their teeth on Thursday afternoon when The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook will set its initial public offering in the high-$20 to mid-$30 range, putting the social network at a $85 to $95 billion valuation. Why the grimace? Well, if you've been following the parade of social media companies going public this year, you probably think that Facebook is lowballing itself a little bit. Wasn't Facebook supposed to be a $100 billion company?

This probably isn't a bad thing. As The Atlantic Wire's own Rebecca Greenfield pointed out on Wednesday, Facebook's advertising-centric business model isn't exactly comforting to would-be investors. Sure, Facebook has a lot of advertisers and pulls in an obscene amount of revenue from selling ads, but the company is having a hard time showing how Facebook ads are translating into product sales or otherwise providing value to those paying for the ads. This sort of thing hasn't been a huge issue in the past because as a private company, Facebook only needs to please its customers. Once it goes public, Mark Zuckerberg and co. have to please their investors, too. By setting a low IPO price, Facebook may soften the blow to future shareholders who might be skeptical about the stock's viability.

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The other thing to consider is that this is just a rumor. Floating a lower number could get potential investors to lean a little further forward and hear what Facebook's top managers have to say when they leave for their pre-IPO roadshow on Monday. You can't overlook the fact that there's been a decent amount of anxiety over a social media bubble, anxiety that we declared valid after Facebook dropped a billion on Instagram last month, seemingly out of nowhere. Facebook's revenue is actually declining, and Facebook-dependent game company Zynga has done nothing but disappoint investors since its own IPO at the end of last year. It would be a good idea for Facebook not to get cocky this early in the game.

Then again, this is Facebook. In two weeks, they could flip a switch, IPO at $50 a share and turn off all privacy settings just because they can. At the end of the day, they've got the largest userbase of any website ever on the Internet, and while it's fun to think that they're handling that power with kid gloves, they've been known to do unpredictable things in the past.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.