Facebook beats on Q4 earnings, revenue, but stock slides on 'significant uncertainty,' ad headwinds

Javier E. David
·Editor focused on markets and the economy
·4 min read

Facebook (FB) reported fourth quarter earnings on Wednesday that were better than expected against a backdrop of mushrooming political and regulatory challenges — but cited “significant uncertainty” as a problem for its massive ad revenue-generating machine.

Here’s a snapshot of key metrics expected versus the comparable year-ago quarter, according to a Bloomberg consensus forecast of Wall Street analysts:

  • Revenue: $28 billion vs $26.407 billion estimated; $21.082 billion in Q4 2019

  • Earnings per share (Adjusted): $3.88 vs $3.54 expected; $2.56 in Q4 2019

  • Ad Revenue: $27.19 billion vs. $26.07 billion expected; $20.74 billion in Q4 2019

  • Daily Active Users (DAU): 1.84 billion vs 1.828 billion estimate; 1.66 billion in Q4 2019

  • Monthly Active Users (MAU): 2.8 billion vs 2.762 billion; 2.50 billion in Q4 2019

With major technology companies in the hot seat as the Biden era begins, Facebook continued to build its user base, while reaping vast ad revenue as brands flock to Instagram, the photo-sharing site Facebook also owns. The company’s board also authorized a Class A share buyback of up to $25 billion, underscoring how the company has persevered despite a turbulent year.

However, the social network cited “significant uncertainty” stemming from the ongoing pandemic, and how that is likely to affect growth in the first quarter, even as the broad shift toward web-based commerce supports its business model. That comment helped knock over 4% from the stock in after-hours trading.

On Tuesday, Facebook’s stock fell in advance of its earnings, trading well below its 52-week high at $304 and in sympathy with a broad sell-off.

However, with the COVID-19 pandemic keeping the world indoors, Facebook has reaped the benefits of surging users and revenue that’s kept Wall Street bullish on the outlook for the social media company.

“We believe these shifts provided a tailwind to our advertising business in the second half of 2020 given our strength in product verticals sold via online commerce and our lower exposure to service verticals like travel,” the company said.

“Looking forward, a moderation or reversal in one or both of these trends could serve as a headwind to our advertising revenue growth,” it added, citing potentially negative growth trends that may be a drag on ad demand in the first half of 2021. Those troubles include Apple’s (AAPL) upcoming shift to iOS 14, and the “evolving regulatory landscape” in both Europe and the U.S.

“As a result, we expect year-over-year growth rates in total revenue to remain stable or modestly accelerate sequentially in the first and second quarters of 2021. In the second half of the year, we will lap periods of increasingly strong growth, which will significantly pressure year-over-year growth rates,” Facebook said.

Wall Street remains bullish

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely via videoconference during a U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law hearing on "Online Platforms and Market Power" in this screengrab made from video as the committee meets on Capitol Hill, in Washington, U.S., July 29, 2020.  U.S. House Judiciary Committee via REUTERS
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies remotely via videoconference during a U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law hearing on "Online Platforms and Market Power" on July 29, 2020. U.S. House Judiciary Committee via REUTERS

Analysts, however, still expect the platform to continue to outperform, given the deeply entrenched trends that have turned Facebook into one of the Internet’s biggest draws for ad dollars.

“We expect ad pricing to take an increased role in Facebook’s revenue growth this year, particularly as the company had taken steps to ramp volume in tandem with engagement growth last year,” analysts at Credit Suisse wrote last week. The bank rates Facebook’s stock as an “Outperform” with a 12-month price target of $325.

Consumers are increasingly using both the core app and Instagram as shopping hubs, Credit Suisse noted. That “brings Facebook closer to the bottom of the marketing funnel, which in turn increases the value of its ad inventory” — and bolsters its attractiveness to paying advertisers, the bank added.

Like other big technology companies, Facebook is still grappling with the fallout from imposing a ban on former President Donald Trump’s social media account. Separately, the site’s controversial political advertising and engagement policies have led critics to accuse Facebook of contributing to the heated partisan atmosphere.

The political controversy is converging with regulatory troubles brewing around the country: In December, a group of 48 attorneys general and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed two separate lawsuits accusing Facebook of violating antitrust law by snapping up smaller tech companies to quash competition.

As part of its lawsuit, the FTC wants to break up Facebook’s sprawling digital empire that includes Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. But that outcome is unlikely, according to UBS.

“We believe because IG & WhatsApp were previously approved by the FTC and as the businesses are already well integrated... it would be unusual and difficult to force a sale/ unwind of these assets,” UBS wrote in December. The bank rates Facebook’s stock as a “Buy” with a 12-month price target of $330.

“That said, we believe the FTC will more rigorously examine future acquisitions, including Giphy [ a deal announced in May of last year], raising the hurdle for future M&A (likely a large cap Internet theme),” UBS added.

Javier David is an editor for Yahoo Finance. Follow Javier on Twitter: @TeflonGeek

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