March 18: That was the day the Guardian and the New York Times reported that 50 million Facebook (FB) profiles were harvested by data firm Cambridge Analytica for “psychographic profiles” in what was a major breach of user trust. Soon, the user data scandal included as many as 87 million Facebook profiles. Facebook shares fell more than 24 percent to a low set on March 26, losing roughly $134 billion in market value in the process.
May 10: Never mind, says Wall Street. After solid Facebook earnings reports and high-profile but uneventful Congressional appearances by CEO Mark Zuckerberg, shares had fully recouped their losses from the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Although the prospects of a billion-dollar federal fine and reduced profitability from tighter regulation remain, Wall Street has been and remains optimistic about the social network’s earnings potential.
So, where’s the stock headed next? At the very least, a retest of Facebook’s late January highs looks likely amid investor excitement over initiatives such as Facebook’s new dating app and chatter of an ad-free subscription service. In his testimony to Congress Zuckerberg pledged that “a version” of Facebook would always be free; the logical conclusion being that, yes, there will be versions that aren’t free. The company also plans to launch smart speakers to take on Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo products and continues to push hard on VR with its Oculus division as well, recently launching the Oculus Go standalone headset for $199.
In a note to clients on May 1, Wedbush analysts expressed a belief that Facebook’s various efforts will continue to generate substantial operating income growth for years and added the stock to their “Best Ideas” list.
Stifel analysts raised their price target to $202 in late April — nearly nine percent above current levels — telling clients post-earnings the stock was too cheap to ignore despite the challenges it still faces. They said one measure of earnings estimates for 2019 showed Facebook stock trading at a modest discount to more conservative stocks like Coca-Cola (KO) and Colgate (CL) despite Facebook earnings growing 10 times faster.
Facebook’s latest earnings results showed that operating income grew 64 percent last quarter, to $5.4 billion, while revenue grew 49 percent. Monthly active users grew 13 percent, to 2.2 billion. Historically, the first quarter is Facebook’s slowest — suggesting that even bigger numbers lie ahead.