Despite Facebook (FB) reporting strong financial results after the bell on Tuesday, the company's share fell in after-hours trading and were down in early trade today. The reason? The social networking giant's plans to ramp up its spending.
Especially in high-tech, that can be a double-edged sword. Corporate leaders want to prepare companies for the future and keep pace with their competitors. At the same time, investors worry that much spending is useless, wasting value that should rightfully be theirs.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg clearly grasps what amounts to an existential problem in high-tech. "Every 10 to 15 years, a new major computing platform arrives," he said during a conference call yesterday to discuss the company's latest results. Translation: Miss the new platform and a company can quickly find itself marginalized.
Apple (AAPL) is one company that has famously ridden the wave of mobile computing to become immensely valuable. Microsoft (MSFT), on the other hand, did not successfully make the shift and now struggles to regain the degree of relevance it once had. Microsoft was also slow to recognize the importance of the Internet, and is still paying the price.
Not surprisingly, Facebook's spending is aimed at bringing Zuckerberg's long-term vision of the company to life. He forsees a vastly different user experience in the future--emphasizing mobile, virtual and augmented reality--which is why Facebook last spent $2 billion on the virtual reality startup Oculus. In the call he said that the purchase will take a "bunch of years" to pay off because "it needs to reach a very large scale, 50 million to 100 million units before it'll really be a very meaningful thing as a computing platform."
For now, in other words, profiting from Facebook's push into such technologies isn't a priority for Zuckerberg, nor for some of the company's other recent acquisitions. The purchase price for WhatsApp, for which Facebook initially paid $4 billion in cash and $12 billion in stock, ultimately hit $21.8 billion because of the increase in Facebook's share price. Meanwhile, WhatsApp lost $138 million last year.
Such investments may keep Facebook innovative, but in the short-term it makes investors nervous. Amazon's (AMZN) forays into new product lines, like the Fire Phone that badly flopped, has become the source of continued red ink, even as the company hits record revenue levels. Yahoo (YHOO) CEO Marissa Mayer has been roundly criticized for her acquisition strategy. She's bought dozens of companies that have yet to translate into improved overall performance. And Google (GOOG) is also exploring diverse areas, including self-driving cars and using nanoparticles for early cancer detection.
Even noted venture capitalists such as Marc Andreessen, Fred Wilson and Bill Gurley have begun to warn about startups burning through cash and not paying attention to the risks that entails. The danger is that all the money brings nothing of lasting value in return, which is what happened in the dot-com crash of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Some CEOs like Zuckerberg and Google's Larry Page (together with Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt) have an unusually large amount of control of their companies. In short, shareholders can't override them. The same is not true of Mayer or Amazon's Jeff Bezos.
However, none of the companies are immune to the whims of investors. For Facebook and other tech companies, the question as ever is whether the future will arrive quickly enough to keep shareholders happy.