Facebook earnings have a lot to live up to

@CNNMoneyTech July 26, 2012: 11:27 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- With wounds still fresh from its initial public offering, Facebook will release its first earnings report as a public company after the stock market closes later today.

Even as shares of Facebook (FB) hover around $29 a share, down 24% from the IPO price of $38, its valuation remains sky high. The stock trades at roughly 73 times its anticipated 2012 earnings, proof that expectations are high for the social networking firm.

Compare that to rival Google (GOOG, Fortune 500), which trades at only about 18 times its expected 2012 earnings.

To justify its current price tag, investors are looking for Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg to start operating the social network more like a traditional business. But Wall Street also wants Facebook to talk about new ways it might be able to profit from its nearly 1 billion users.

First, Facebook must beat analysts' expectations on profits and revenues. It's a simple formula for all public traded companies, but after Facebook's troubled IPO, its already skittish investor base needs to see that the company can at the very least hit these targets.

Analysts expect Facebook's second quarter revenues to come in around $1.15 billion and that it will earn 12 cents per share before certain charges, according to Thomson Reuters.

But investors may have more reasons to be skittish after social gaming company Zynga (ZNGA), a source of 15% of Facebook's first quarter revenues, reported earnings that missed forecasts. Zynga also lowered its outlook.

Facebook is likely to post an actual net loss because of payouts to early investors and compensation costs (i.e. stock grants) for employees tied to the IPO. But analysts will look at Facebook's actual profits after backing out those one-time expenses.

If Facebook misses earnings expectations, many analysts expect the stock to get hit hard. Piper Jaffray's analysts, who have a "buy" rating on the stock and a target of $41, cited an earnings miss as a major near-term danger for investors.

"If Facebook were to miss earnings, the stock would be punished more than a typical earnings miss by a tech company given it would come on the heels of the disappointing IPO," according to a Piper Jaffray research note.

But even if it hits targets, Facebook's sales growth is clearly slowing. According to analysts at Stifel Nicolaus, year-over-year revenue growth for the second quarter should be about 28%. Sales rose 45% annually during the first quarter of 2012.

Still, some analysts are hopeful that Facebook can reignite its growth by announcing new ways to generate revenue.

One possible option is a rumored "want" button that would let Facebook users tell their friends what they want to buy online. Piper Jaffray's analysts see such a button as a way for Facebook to compete directly with Google by giving it access to more customer data.

Analysts at Lazard Capital Markets, which rate Facebook as "neutral", speculate that the company could build a "PayPal-like $5 billion payment processing revenue stream in the next five years."

The options for Facebook are limitless. Hints of grand new ways to profit could get investors excited again.

Immediately though, investors want details of how Facebook will make more money from users who access Facebook from mobile devices. Right now Facebook generates most of its ad revenues from users who access the site on personal computers.

Without a plan to cash in on mobile, Facebook could join the growing list of companies in the tech world, including AOL (AOL) and Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500), whose stocks failed to return to their all-time highs.

Finally, investors are anxiously waiting to see if Facebook will offer revenue and profit guidance. While Google's founders told investors from the start that they'd eschew quarterly outlooks, Facebook hasn't let investors know if it plans to follow Google's lead.

The failure to do so by Zuckerberg and team could be seen as yet another reason for investors to see the social network as a black box.  To top of page

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