Margareta Pagano: Mr Facebook, who do you think you are?
An astronomical price tag for the social network but, not only does no one seem to know what it may become, it could already be on the way out
Margareta Pagano is a former business editor of the Independent on Sunday who now writes columns and business interviews for a range of publications, including the Independent, Independent on Sunday and London Evening Standard.
Sunday 20 May 2012
The big question to ask about Facebook, and whether it is worth the astronomical $100bn price tag, is not what it is today but what it is going to become. As it exists now, Facebook is a global web interface, a means by which 900 million people around the world chat and exchange photographs, recommend bands or let each other know what time a party starts. But once you strip aside the hype, there's nothing that Facebook does which other services don't also offer; it's not unique in any way.
To find out what Facebook might become, I've been reading copious amounts of research from all sorts of smart social media experts and financial analysts. And, you know what, no one has a clue; most of it is pie-in-the-sky stuff, studies showing that online advertising has risen 420-fold over the past few years and is set to keep climbing. Why?
There's no reason it should and that's why experts can only value Facebook on what it has been, and that's no guide to the future. Instead, I decided to do my own research with my 17-year-old son, three of his friends, my 20-year-old daughter and another two siblings in their twenties, all Facebook addicts I may add, to find out what they think.
Here's the verdict; one said he would pay £10 a year to get Facebook, three said they are bored and Facebook is dead, another said it's entertainment and uses it mainly to chat to friends they see all day but could easily do without it, another said founder Mark Zuckerberg was daft not to buy Twitter and the eldest said he wished he were Mr Zuckerberg.
Even more interesting was that all said they plan to start new pages or sign off when they move on to college or work for privacy reasons. Anecdotally, they said they have noticed that younger siblings prefer tweeting and are not signing on.
Their views mirror a CNBC/AP poll in the US last week that claims half the country says Facebook is on its way out. As my small sample shows, the young are fickle when it comes to brand loyalty; each generation also likes its own new thing. They stay with Apple because it makes beautiful and innovative products, but there is no such stickiness with Facebook. There are also hundreds of young would-be techies out there already working on the next idea to steal Facebook's space.
If customers are not loyal to the Facebook brand there is only one way Mr Zuckerberg can build the business. He has to become the Procter & Gamble or Unilever of the social media world and buy up all new rivals. But it's going to be tough; the social media world is in upheaval and advertisers are experimenting with the web and changing their minds all the time. Look at General Motors pulling advertising from Facebook because its ads haven't worked.
Relying on advertising is dangerous. Mr Zuckerberg hopes revenue will roll in from the advertisers when he can offer clients more personalised, profiling of his users and their potential customers. Facebook is already the most narcissist organisation I can think of, but such gathering of information makes it sinister as well. We know the alphabet people can find out what they want at any one time. But do people want their most intimate thoughts and relationships stored with companies like Facebook? The CIA would just love that.
What's that saying? Sell on the news? Well, to my mind the real news is that nearly all the early investors and founders of Facebook are selling more shares than they originally planned. Goldman Sachs has more than doubled the number of shares it's selling to $1bn, Tiger Global Management is selling more than it intended, as are board members. New investors will make some money when the shares start trading properly this week because of all the hype but the real money has already been made. The investment bankers have done it again.
We can only hope the Spanish bank crisis can be contained
It's a year ago this month that los indignados, a group of frustrated and out-of-work Spaniards, starting marching across Spain and up into France in protest over welfare cuts and soaring unemployment.
Around eight million are estimated to have taken part in the demonstrations over the past year with protesters blaming the corrupt politicians and greedy bankers for the country's economic plight and arguing for political reform.
They were ahead of their time. Today it's the money that is walking out of Spain as fears grow that the country is sliding back into recession and its banks are effectively bust because of bad loans to the property sector.
The Bank of Spain admitted on Friday these were up by a third to €148bn while the government was forced to deny a run of around €1bn on the country's fourth biggest bank, Bankia, after it was nationalised last week. It's no surprise householders are taking money out of ATMs and deposit accounts.
The situation hasn't been helped by the Moody's decision to cut credit ratings on 16 Spanish banks, including Santander's UK subsidiary. So it's not a shock that Santander UK's customers are worried, and some are already taking out deposits. They are right to be nervous. But should also know that their deposits are covered – up to a cap of £85,000 – by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. If accounts are held by a couple, each person has their own limit.
Even after the downgrade, Santander UK has a standalone credit rating which is one of the highest of all the UK banks. It's also run completely autonomously from the Spanish parent with a tight ring-fence. According to the Financial Services Authority, the UK business should be fine even if there are further problems at its parent.
Spain's banks should also have plenty of liquidity as they have been the biggest users of the ECB's liquidity facility so problems shouldn't get worse. But, as we saw with Northern Rock, banking is all confidence. Fingers crossed.
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