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Thursday, December 26, 2013

Connecting the Dots: Zuckerberg on Facebook

Why did Mark Zuckerberg unload $2.3 billion of his Facebook stock? The complete answer likely involves more than meets the eye, at least relative to what business reporters and editors had to say publically. What is not said is itself a story worth publishing. Beyond Zuckerberg’s stratagem, what the media doesn’t say might be more significant that what has made it through the filters.
Part of the answer concerning Zuckerberg’s sell-off involves his need for cash to pay taxes that would be due from his exercising an option to purchase 60 million Class B shares. This move likely implies a belief that Facebook stock would not go much higher.  Had Zuckerberg strongly believed at the time that Facebook was yet to cash in on advertising revenue beyond that which the market had already factored into the company’s stock price, the CEO would not have exercised the options in expectation of a wider spread. Even with the taxes coming due, the billionaire could probably have found an alternative way to come up with the cash. 
Like a deer frozen in an oncoming car’s headlights, the media did not analyze Zuckerberg’s motives beyond his public statements. Instead, the herd animals let themselves be led along, prancing in tracks of positive correlation. This concept essentially means that two things tend to occur together. For instance, we see umbrellas on rainy days. This does not mean that umbrellas cause rain, or that rain rather than manufacturing causes umbrellas. To assume causation from two things tending to occur at the same time is to commit what David Hume calls the naturalistic fallacy. Just because two things happen at the same time does not mean that one caused the other.
So the media’s report that Zuckerberg’s stock sale and exercise came as the CEO was donating $1 billion worth of shares to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation to “boost his philanthropic efforts in education,” and Facebook was selling 27 million shares to raise an expected $1.46 billion for general purposes is simply positive correlation; causation cannot be assumed.[1] In other words, we cannot conclude that Zuckerberg decided to sell off a chunk of his stock and exercise an option because he had decided to donate some stock and Facebook was raising more capital. In other words, the additional information conveniently provided does not get us any closer to a full answer. Worse yet, Zuckerberg and his PR staff might have been throwing the media a tantalizing, and thus distractive, bone. One reporter took the bait, writing that with cash and marketable securities of $9.3 billion as of September 30, 2013, Facebook may not have needed another $1.46 billion.[2] Off reporter’s radar screen was the possibility that Zuckerberg had designed his philanthropy and the company’s additional stock offering as luring camouflage that would use even criticism of his company to keep the eye off his own trades and especially what they imply about his view of the company’s future. That shares of Facebook dropped only 1% to $55.05 in trading on the news suggests that investors were swallowing what Zuckerberg and the media were serving as dessert.
What of the market insiders? Were they also biting? As John Shinal puts it, “More important, insiders have detailed knowledge of a public company’s near-term prospects and thus are in a better position to know when to sell.”[3] I suspect that “people in the know” may have connected the dots. Two months earlier, a poll revealed that as the most important social media site for teenagers, Facebook fell from 42% in the autumn of 2012 to 23% a year later.[4] Can we suppose this poll somehow missed Zuckerberg’s attention? The media certainly did not connect the dots.
The theory behind my analysis is not financial; rather, I consider Mintzberg’s theory of the organizational lifecycle to be more revealing in this particular case. The theory suggests that just as empires rise and fall, so too do companies. Once past their peak, a “hardening of the arteries” sets in.
The organizational lifecycle. When Zuckerberg decided to sell a block of shares and exercise options, he already had a picture of Facebook already on the downward slope without much chance of revitalization. Image Source: www.sourcingideas.blogspot.com
 
The aging (i.e., a decreasing willingness or ability to adapt to a changing environment, and increasing dead weight internally) can be delayed as the downward slope bides its time; but like entropy as a final destination, the end is inevitable for humans and our organizational artifices. I suspect that Zuckerberg had come to view his company as past its prime, given the leading indicator shown in the poll. If I am right, the game has already changed to keeping the illusion alive long enough for the Facebook insiders to get out under the black shimmering cover of the Styx.

 



[i] Scott Martin, “Zuckerberg’s in Mood to Sell,” USA Today, December 20, 2013; John Shinal, “Facebook Shares May Underperform,” USA Today, December 20, 2013.
[ii] John Shinal, “Facebook Shares May Underperform,” USA Today, December 20, 2013.
[iii]Ibid.
[iv] Bianca Bosker, “Facebook’s Rapidly Declining Popularity with Teens in 1 Chart,” The Huffington Post, October 23, 2013.