5 Smart Things Facebook Can Do With Its Cash
May 31st 2012 1:54PM
Updated May 31st 2012 1:58PM
It's been nearly two weeks since Facebook (NAS: FB) began trading publicly, and the steam can still be seen coming out of Main Street investors' ears regarding the company's -- and its stock's -- precipitous fall from grace.
At some point in the near future, investors will forget all about Nasdaq OMX's technical foul-ups in placing buy and sell orders, the fact that lead underwriter Morgan Stanley (NYS: MS) lowered earnings estimates on the company just a day before it went public, and CEO Mark Zuckerberg's frantic attempts to increase the offering price at the behest of the underwriters, despite what is now perceived as a misunderstanding of actual demand.
When that happens (keep holding your breath), investors will actually have to get out their pen and paper and put a logical valuation on Facebook -- not one influenced by anger, love, or any other sentiment, but rather a logical evaluation of the company.
Today, I want to examine further one aspect that will be taken into account when investors do get around to properly valuing Facebook: its cash balance.
My Foolish colleague Morgan Housel already touched on Facebook's huge cash load last week when he examined the incredible amount of time Facebook could reasonably go without receiving a payment and still keep its operations running. Based on the $6.76 billion raised during its IPO and the $3.9 billion already on its book beforehand, Facebook could last, according to Morgan's findings, roughly eight years without any payments from its customers. That's a stunning figure that's double what its social-media peer Google (NAS: GOOG) can boast.
With a current cash balance of roughly $10.7 billion, the question has to be asked: "What is Facebook going to do with all of that cash?"
The company doesn't even know as of now, as it outlined in its IPO prospects: "We intend to use the net proceeds to us from our initial public offering for working capital and other general corporate purposes; however, we do not currently have any specific uses of the net proceeds planned."
As for me, I have a few ideas for Mr. Zuckerberg.
1. Buy its way into China
If you haven't heard by now, there's this little country called China that has more than 1.3 billion people and is expecting to grow its GDP by 7.5% this year. As of December 2011, China accounts for 513 million of the 2.27 billion worldwide Internet users -- that's 23%! As U.S. and European markets grow saturated and growth tapers, Facebook is going to need to find ways to grow its business and get more page views. Plain and simple, China is it!
There's just one small problem: China's strict Internet laws would keep a company like Facebook out of the fold. It's the same reason Google isn't dominating the search engine market in China. So, to me, it would make a lot of sense for Facebook to consider using its cash to acquire a China-based social site or a media outlet that could roll out a social site in a fashion similar to how Google rolled out Google+. No, this isn't an endorsement for Renren, but it could mean that SINA (NAS: SINA) -- which has both mobile and Internet applications, and whose portal Weibo is set up as a trendy micro-blogging platform -- could prove a perfect entry for Facebook into the Chinese market.
2. Focus on mobile, mobile, and more mobile
Out of all the arguments as to why you shouldn't buy Facebook's stock, the one that makes the most sense is that it's giving away revenue opportunities each and every day on the mobile front. Facebook has 901 million users, of which 425 million access the social site by mobile device each month. Not a single one of these users is seeing ads -- a gigantic missed opportunity by a company that relied on advertising to produce 82% of its revenue last month.
We are beginning to see Facebook take notice, and it has taken the first steps to remedy this situation in the past few weeks. The first step was the purchase of photograph-sharing company Instagram for $1 billion. Instagram might seem ludicrously valued to many, but it was the fastest-growing mobile app in April, according to ComScore, with 14.6 million unique users, up from just 8.2 million in March. Its jump onto Android phones is the primary reason for those gains. Facebook has also made notable purchases since then of Glancee, a location-sharing mobile app, and LightBox, an Android OS rival to Instagram.
This is a good start, but I'm expecting much, much more!
3. Go digital
Facebook is making frequent small purchases of late. But last year's purchase of Push Pop Press, a start-up digital bookmaking service by former Apple employees, intrigued me.
Both Apple and Push Pop Press noted that Facebook has no intentions of infiltrating the book business anytime soon, and that Push Pop Press' intellectual property is what made it an attractive purchase. I, however, think it would be a genius move if Facebook moved into the social e-book platform. Facebook's main rival, Google, currently provides its users with an eBookstore, so it would be only natural for Facebook to offer its own digital book platform.
In addition, a digital bookmaking platform would allow lesser-known authors -- and much of its user base -- an easier way to transfer content across its media platform. What, do you actually think Barnes & Noble has a clue what it's doing with the Nook? Facebook has a huge opportunity to expand its content reach, and digitizing book content could be a smart move for the company.
4. Find a good lawyer
If Apple (NAS: AAPL) has taught us anything, it's that being the biggest simply means a larger bull's-eye on your back.
Apple, the most sued tech company in the world, has seemingly defended itself against everyone but the kitchen sink. The U.S. government, Eastman Kodak, Motorola Mobility Solutions, and Nokia are just a small sampling of the plaintiffs that have sued Apple. Apple has, in turn, sued five very large tech companies since 2008.
Facebook needs to learn from Apple and understand that it's going to be the target of every business, big and small, that feels it has had its intellectual-property portfolio stomped on by Facebook. For starters, it needs to prepare for the lawsuits that will continue to stream in from its botched IPO. We often forget about the ramifications of legal expenses, but Apple provides a good reminder that they're an important part of protecting your patents and your image.
5. Pay its shareholders a dividend
Last, but certainly not least, Facebook should consider paying its shareholders a dividend! I know, I know -- Facebook just went public, and if it wants to stay ahead of its competition, it will need to expand its existing infrastructure and make key acquisitions. Well guess what? I agree!
However, I also understand that Facebook wouldn't exist without the 901 million active users that draw ads and business opportunities to its site. Adding a dividend would also be a sincere gesture that shows Facebook cares about the interests of its shareholders, which isn't a bad idea, considering that its IPO was a flop and that Zuckerberg has a lion's share (57%) of the voting interest. If shareholders felt they were getting something in return, a lot of the doubt over Zuckerberg's ability to run a mega-cap company would probably dissipate.
What do you feel is the most prudent thing for Facebook to do with its cash? Tell me and your fellow Fools about it in the comments section below.
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At the time this article was published Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. He admits to spending way too much time on Facebook. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.The Motley Fool owns shares of Facebook, Google, and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Google, SINA, and Apple, as well as writing puts on Barnes & Noble and creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.
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