Was Facebook's botched IPO a conspiracy?

Facebook shares traded up initially when the company went public on May 18.

Story highlights

  • A week into Facebook's debut on the market, its price was down
  • Aswath Damodaran: Facebook's IPO debacle was result of ineptitude
  • Damodaran: Don't assume that bankers and experts know what they are talking about

A week into Facebook's debut on the Nasdaq stock exchange, its initial offering price of $38 per share dropped to $31.91. Retail investors' fears deepened as they realize they are losing a lot of money.

The Facebook IPO did not follow the usual script. Instead of launching the largest social media company in the world as a legitimate and valuable business, the IPO has laid bare all of the questions and doubts about its potential performance.

So why did the Facebook IPO bomb as badly as it did?

In a lawsuit filed last week, some investors contend that Morgan Stanley, the lead underwriter of the IPO, withheld key information about a negative financial forecast from them while sharing it with their institutional clients.

Aswath Damodaran

In this conspiratorial tale, the bad guys are the insiders at Facebook, the investment bankers and the favored institutional clients of these bankers. The bankers set the offering price at $38, knowing that the stock was not worth that much, the insiders in the company unloaded their shares at the offering price and institutional investors stayed on the sidelines. Individual small investors who bought at the offering price suffered as the price collapsed. In other words, the suckers are the rest of the world.

Opinion: Was Facebook IPO a bust?

But I don't buy this story. First, unlike many others who have seen the crises of the last few years as evidence that bankers are evil, I see them more as inept. Facebook's IPO is just proof that if you want something valued, you should not ask a bank to do it.

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    None of the actors in this story can be happy with how Facebook's IPO has unfolded in its first week. The investment banks look like bad "deal makers," which strikes at the heart of one of their few remaining revenue-generating skills. Any profits or commissions that Morgan Stanley booked on this IPO are overwhelmed by the reputation hit that it took and the consequences this will have on future deals. The Facebook insiders who remain have not only lost billions in value but have made it more difficult to unload their remaining shares down the road. And most of the shares at the offering price went to the institutional investors, who now face paper or real losses on those shares.

    Facebook IPO: Outraged investor cries grow louder

    So, what happened?

    I think the investment bankers priced the offering based on how shares of Facebook were trading in the private market and their assessments of institutional demand. I don't think that revenue growth, margins, risk or any other fundamentals played much of a role in the pricing. I don't fault them for playing the momentum game, but they played it badly.

    By pushing up the offering price to its upper limit and by expanding the offering to allow more insiders to cash out, they broke the spell that momentum casts over investors. It would have happened eventually, but they did not anticipate how quickly the shift would occur.

    What are the lessons to take from this mess?

    First, don't assume that bankers, experts and analysts know what they are talking about. When they tout an investment, be especially skeptical if they have a stake in it.

    Reactions: Facebook IPO underwhelms Web, too

    Second, much as it soothes the ego to think that your portfolio setbacks are because of a conspiracy, where large institutional clients make a killing and the individual investors get the crumbs from the table, it is institutional clients who lose the most in bad deals because they have more to lose.

    Finally, remember that markets make mistakes, and they can make bigger ones after a meltdown like this one. I would not be surprised if disappointed investors drive the price down to a point where you and I can have the ultimate revenge on Mark Zuckerberg: Buy his company at a bargain basement price and make money off him.

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