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Meta Stock Looks Cheap. That’s No Longer a Good Reason to Buy.

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Challenges are rising for Meta Platforms—and they’re no longer just about Facebook’s legacy business.
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Suddenly, investors are giving Facebook a big thumbs down. Within 24 hours of reporting dismal results on Wednesday night, Facebook parent Meta Platforms lost more than a quarter of its market capitalization, some $250 billion. It was the largest single-day loss of corporate value in U.S. history.

And the value destruction might not be over. For Facebook , this is different than the privacy scandals and political controversies that have surrounded the company. This time, the problems are with the business itself.

Meta (ticker: FB) offered a first-quarter outlook that reveals slowing usage of its social media apps and troubling trends in advertising sales. Fixing the problems will take multiple quarters, and potentially years. Meanwhile, the repairs will have to be made as the company pivots to the metaverse, a significant gamble on an unproven technology.

By the end of a long week of tech earnings (see this week’s Tech Trader), it became clear that Meta’s problems are unique, and not part of a broader industry downturn. Google parent Alphabet (GOOGL) posted strong results driven by demand for advertising space on Google Search and YouTube. And on Thursday afternoon—one day after Meta’s nightmarish report—smaller rivals Snap (SNAP) and Pinterest (PINS) surprised investors with better-than-expected numbers, including Snap’s first-ever profit.

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Amazon.com (AMZN) rounded out the big week of earnings with its own impressive results—including 32% growth in its advertising business. Those reports helped tech stocks snap back on Friday: The Nasdaq Composite rallied 2%, but Meta shares were flat.

The lack of buying on the dip reflects the serious issues Meta raised with its earnings. For the first quarter, the company sees revenue of $27 billion to $29 billion, up between 3% and 11% from a year ago. That would be a sharp deceleration from 48% growth a year ago. Meta said results would be affected by “headwinds” to both the number of ad impressions generated by its platforms and by pressures on ad pricing.

The forecast came as a shock to Facebook investors who have grown used to reliable growth, even amid controversy. Meta by its own admission is now dealing with multiple issues: slowing usage of the company’s core social media apps, tough earnings comparisons, decelerating spending by advertisers that are facing labor and product shortages, and intensified competition from TikTok, the short-form video app owned by China-based ByteDance.

Meta’s mention of weaker ad impressions was the real shocker. The company said its core Facebook business had one million fewer daily average users in the December quarter versus the previous three months. That has never happened before. The slowdown could reflect people spending more time out of the house after two years of severe pandemic restrictions. Alternatively, or perhaps additionally, it could be that people are simply growing a little tired of social media, and using the platforms a little less.

On its post-earnings call with investors, Meta repeatedly pointed to competition from TikTok. Meta is going after TikTok with a competitive service called Reels, which have been pushed across Facebook feeds. But it is going to take time for Facebook to catch up to TikTok’s popularity, if it ever does. Meanwhile, the issue is cutting into Meta’s revenues.

“On the impressions side, we expect continued headwinds from both increased competition for people’s time and a shift of engagement within our apps toward video surfaces like Reels, which monetize at lower rates than Feed and Stories,” the company said. In other words, competition from TikTok is forcing Facebook to push users into less profitable parts of its platform.

On ad pricing, meanwhile, Meta continues to deal with Apple ’s (AAPL) adoption of tough new rules that limit advertisers’ ability to track consumer behavior on iOS devices. Those changes weren’t yet in place a year ago, so the comparison will be felt again in the first quarter. “We anticipate modestly increasing ad targeting and measurement headwinds from platform and regulatory changes,” Meta said.

The company has previously expressed confidence that it could develop workarounds for Apple’s changes, which affect ad targeting along with knowing when ads trigger purchases or other consumer behaviors. But Meta now sounds less confident about a near-term fix, saying the Apple changes will trim its revenue by $10 billion this year.

Perhaps most worrisome for Facebook is that Snap and Pinterest, rivals that in theory should be suffering a similar slowdown from Apple’s changes, didn’t report the same issues in the quarter.

Source: Dow Jones Market Data

To be sure, the Meta story still has investor appeal, most notably a cheap stock. After the selloff, Meta trades at a discount to the S&P 500—19.3 times versus 20.3 times, respectively. Meta has also been aggressively buying back stock—$33 billion over the past two quarters. While those purchases look ill-timed, the buybacks suggest that the Meta board considers the stock cheap. That doesn’t mean it can’t get cheaper.

Meta’s risks are growing and they’re no longer just about Facebook’s legacy business. The company is spending aggressively on its metaverse build out—capital spending this year is expected to be between $29 billion and $34 billion, up from $19.2 billion last year. No one really knows if the plan will work: How many people want to attend concerts, parties, and meetings in an imaginary world while wearing a virtual reality headset? The metaverse has become CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s biggest bet—and it gives the company a quickly changing risk profile, one that looks uncomfortable even with a cheap stock.

Meta’s user base is mammoth—3.6 billion monthly active users, or close to half the Earth’s population. But growth is finally slowing, the advertising business is in trouble, regulators are circling, and the metaverse is in its infancy. For Meta, it’s a mega set of risks.

Connor Smith contributed reporting.

Write to Eric J. Savitz at eric.savitz@barrons.com

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