Last weekend I have been reading lot of literature and news about the deal between Facebook and Whatsapp. Most of the people bloghave challenged it on the Value and Pricing Perspectives. Have taken some extracted thoughts from prof Aswath Damodaran and they looks very interesting:

Following in the footsteps of my favorite baseball general manager, Billy Beane, its time to play some Moneyball, where we let the data drive our actions, rather than our intellects. Here is what I take out of these numbers:

  1. If you are an investor, stop trying to explain price movements on social media companies, using traditional metrics – revenues, operating margins and risk. You will only drive yourself into frenzy. More important, don’t assume that your rational analysis will determine where the price is going next and act on it and trade on that assumption. In other words, don’t sell short, expecting market vindication for your valuation skills. It won’t come in the short term, may not come in the long term and you may be bankrupt before you are right.
  2. If you are a trader, play the pricing game and stop deluding yourself into believing that this is about fundamentals. Rather than tell me stories about future earnings at Facebook/Twitter/Linkedin, make your buy/sell recommendation based on the number of users and their intensity, since that it what investors are pricing in right now.
  3. If you are a company and you want to play the pricing game, I think that the key is to find that “pricing variable” that matters and try to deliver the best results you can on that variable.

Returning to the Facebook/Whatsapp deal, it seems to me that Facebook is playing the pricing game, and that recognizing that this is a market that rewards you for having a greater number of more involved users, they have gone after a company (Whatsapp) that delivers on both dimensions. Here is a very simplistic way to see how the deal can play out. Facebook is currently being valued at $170 billion, at about $130/user, given their existing user base of 1.25 billion. If the Whatsapp acquisition increases that user base by 160 million (I know that Whatsapp has 450 million users, but since its revenue options are limited as a standalone app, the value proposition here is in incremental Facebook users), and the market continues to price each user at $130, you will generate an increase in market value of $20.8 billion, higher than the price paid. Are there lots of “ifs” in this deal? Sure, but it does simplify the explanation.

Are there dangers in this deal? Of course! First, it is possible (and perhaps even probable) that the market is over estimating the value of users at social media companies across the board. However, Facebook has buffered the blowback from this problem by paying for the bulk of the deal with its own shares. Thus, if it turns out that a year or two from now that reality brings social media companies back down to earth, Facebook would have overpaid for Whatsapp but the shares it used on the overpayment were also over priced. Second, as social media companies move up the life cycle, the variable(s) that even traders user to price companies will change from number of users/user intensity to revenues, earnings and cash flows. When that happens, there will be a repricing of social media companies, with those that were most successful in turning users into revenues/earnings being priced higher. This, after all, is what happened in an earlier iteration with dot com companies that went from being priced based on website visitors (analogous to number of users) to being priced based on how long those visitors looked at your website (paralleling user intensity) to how much they generated in revenues before settling into earnings. The problem for companies (and investors) is that these transitions happen unpredictably and that markets can shift abruptly from focusing on one variable to another. For Facebook, the path to success with this deal is therefore simple, albeit not easy. Start by trying to attract Whatsapp users to the Facebook ecosystem, and hope and pray that the market’s focus stays on the number of users for the near term. Follow up by trying to monetize these users, with advertising revenue being the obvious front end but perhaps other sources as well.

Closing Thoughts

Markets have been that no one has a monopoly on virtue and good sense and that the hubris that leads to absolute conviction is an invitation for a market take-down. To investors who view deals like the Whatsapp acquisition as evidence of irrational exuberance, remember that there are traders who are laughing their way to the bank, with the profits that they have collected from their social media investments. Similarly, for traders who view fundamentals and valuation as games played by eggheads and academics, recognize that mood and momentum may be the dominant factors driving social media companies right now, but markets are fickle and fundamentals will matter (sooner or later).