The Facebook IPO Was an Inside Joke

Facebook's stock continues to suck harder than a Northwestern University freshman on a 5-foot bong in his profile pic. And the fallout from the most hyped IPO in history bursts not just the illusion that Facebook is actually worth $100 billion, but the idea that Facebook is different than any other corporation hell-bent on making as much money as possible for a handful of very wealthy people.

The lead-up to last Friday's Facebook IPO was an orgy of web 2.0 populism. Started by a Harvard undergrad in his dorm room, Facebook was poised to become the largest tech IPO ever. And its value stemmed from our stuff—our status updates, pictures and pokes! This was the major driver of the outlandish hype surrounding Facebook's IPO; the sense that the public would finally get a chance to share in the spectacular success of the company we helped build.

It seemed like the entire planet was going public, as journalists rushed to interview random Facebook users for their thoughts, as if they mattered. People who never made it past the paywall of the Wall Street Journal followed the Facebook stock debut on Friday like the score in an NBA game. And this is because when Facebook was listed, our own lives were literally put on sale; in fixating on Facebook's ever-climbing valuation we were obsessing over ourselves. There was almost a bit of Occupy Wall Street about the whole thing—the public offering of the 99%.

Now, as Facebook's stock falls for a third straight day it's clear we weren't worth as much as a lot of people thought. But the details behind the deal also also make it clear that ordinary people will never meaningfully share in Facebook's vast success, no matter where the needle on the Wall Street Journal's awful Mark Zuckerberg Wealth-Tracking Widget finally lands.

It turns out that the insiders who did the Facebook deal withheld some important information that showed it wasn't such a good deal after all. Analysts at three of the major underwriters, including Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, significantly reduced their forecasts for Facebook's revenues just before the IPO, according to Reuters. They did not widely publicize this information via, say, a Facebook status update. They quietly shared it with their buddies at hedge funds and other big investment firms, many of whom cut back on their investments accordingly. Meanwhile, the general public continued to froth at ever-climbing valuations.

"Facebook was whispering in the ears of the lead managers of its investment banks, on the understanding that the results of those whispers would remain available only to select clients until after the IPO was over," writes Reuters' Felix Salmon. This doesn't seem to be illegal, just shady as hell. (The SEC says it may look into the allegations, which are detailed in full on Business Insider.)

Even without secret tips from their banker buddies, the whole game was rigged in favor of insiders from the start—even more than usual for Wall Street. In the New Yorker, John Cassady explains how major investors had already made huge profits trading Facebook for months on secondary markets before the company went public, rendering the IPO a farce. These investors had already slurped up Facebook's value and moved on before the shit-show began. "Ordinary investors were largely cut out of the wealth-creation process, and well-connected investment firms took their place," writes Cassady.

(Incidentally, now that Facebook's tanking, Morgan Stanley and the other banks that underwrote the deal have a good shot at making a profit by short selling millions of Facebook shares that had been created just for them under an arcane financial move known as the "Greenshoe option." Nice deal, if you can get it.)

These maneuvers show once again that Facebook's lofty ideals are at odds with how it functions in reality. For a company built on sharing and transparency, Facebook's IPO was uniquely private and opaque. For a company which Mark Zuckerberg boasted in a letter to investors "was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission," Facebook sure as hell acted like a company in helping to enrich insiders at the expense of public investors.

So, Mark Zuckerberg screwed Facebook investors in the IPO like he's screwed Facebook users on privacy. (Hours before the IPO, Facebook was hit with a $15 billion lawsuit over privacy violations.) This would be just a hilarious coincidence, except for the vast amounts of money he's made doing both.

Image by Jim Cooke.