Facebook flop hurts small investors' trust in stocks

Fri May 25, 2012 3:46pm EDT

* Brokerage execs fear backlash from retail investors

* Low trading volume, high cash balances seen continuing

* Confidence in securities industry takes another hit

By Jed Horowitz and Olivia Oran

NEW YORK, May 25 (Reuters) - Just when brokers thought Mom-and-Pop investors were getting excited about the stock market, along came Facebook.

The 17 percent plunge in Facebook's shares since its ballyhooed debut last Friday, coupled with Nasdaq's mishandling of opening day trading, is spooking the very investors who had seemed the most intrigued by the offering, said Wall Street executives.

"The Facebook IPO is another in a series of data points that feed concerns that the financial markets are not a safe place to be for individual investors," said John Taft, chief executive of Royal Bank of Canada's U.S. wealth management division, one of 33 underwriters of the offering.

Brokerage firms have been fighting to restore investor confidence in the markets since the financial crisis of 2008, but trading volume has remained stubbornly weak. Market-shattering events such as the Flash Crash of 2010, the Bernard Madoff scam, last summer's downgrade of U.S. government debt and the European sovereign debt crisis have been pushing investors out of equities into cash or bonds that yield near-zero returns.

Anticipation of the Facebook IPO had created a stir of public interest in the offering and in stocks in general. Now, its failure is expected to drive more retail investors away from stocks and further depress trading volume, which lowers revenue at brokerage firms.

"YOU OWE ME"

Investors poured $33.5 billion of net new money into U.S. stock mutual funds in the first quarter, according to Thomson Reuters Lipper. In the last three weeks, however, they pulled out $16.3 billion.

"The Facebook flop didn't help," said Jeff Tjornehoj, Lipper's head of Americas research.

"The perception was that something good was going on," said Anthony DeChellis, chief executive of private banking Americas at Credit Suisse, which also had a small portion of the Facebook underwriting. "It could have gotten people interested in the next IPO, but the conversation now is, 'You owe me because of Facebook.'"

The Facebook IPO had plenty of problems. The company increased the size and price of the issue just before the debut, and it later emerged that numerous analysts had cut their growth forecasts for the company -- without telling retail investors.

One result was that despite pre-IPO chatter about a scarcity of shares, too many retail investors got a piece of the Facebook action, brokers said. Trading in the IPO last Friday made up 40 percent of daily volume at discount brokerages, up from 2 percent to 5 percent historically for IPOs, according to analysts at Sandler O'Neill & Partners. So-called retail investors lost an estimated $630 million in the first four days of trading.

EVEN INSIDERS GOT PUMMELED

New headlines showing that even Wall Street insiders got pummeled by the Facebook debut have stoked further doubts among small investors. At least four of the trading firms chosen by Nasdaq to make markets in Facebook lost a total of more than $100 million because of systems issues in the electronic marketplace, according to one of the firms.

"It's disheartening and very scary," said Victoria Phibbs, a day trader from Jacksonville, Florida, who canceled an order for 400 Facebook shares through her Charles Schwab Corp brokerage account as she watched the price plummet on its opening day of trading. She learned in the evening that her order was nevertheless filled, leading to a $1,000 loss as she sold the shares. Schwab, she said, reimbursed her commission costs.

"It's not like when our parents used to trade," she said, recalling a time when investors could be confident enough in the markets to buy and hold stocks for the long term. "I feel like you can't win as an individual investor."

Spokespersons at Nasdaq did not respond to calls for comment. A Schwab spokesman said the company has resolved most of its clients' Facebook-related issues.

Brian Cabral, a United Airlines pilot from Topsfield, Massachusetts, ordered 100 Facebook shares through a discount broker last Friday during a layover on a flight from Tokyo to Washington, then quickly canceled the order. He received a "cancel pending" notice within minutes. But more than six hours elapsed before he received word that the cancellation went through, a notification he said typically takes five to 10 minutes.

"I think these types of shenanigans will dissuade people from investing in the stock market," said the 50-year-old pilot. "You're not going to see my generation really coming back to this market."

NASDAQ GLITCHES ADD FEAR

RBC's Taft said the Facebook systems glitches are particularly harmful to restoring confidence. "You can imagine the feedback we're getting from brokers and clients," he said. "You should be able to trust that your buy and sell orders are being filled in a timely manner."

The securities industry is concerned that the extended drought in stock investing will continue to erode its bottom line. Trading commissions at retail brokerage firms dipped 9 percent in this year's first quarter from a year earlier while cash balances and investments in low-yielding bonds are at unusually high levels. "Credits" reflecting cash at securities firms have grown 32 percent in the 24 months ended Feb. 28, according to regulatory reports.

Balances in margin accounts - a profitable lending product for brokers and an indication of investors' risk appetites - are 10 percent below last April, according to analysts at Goldman Sachs.

The hit to brokerage firms' bottom lines from reduced trading has been cushioned by the growth of fee-based advisory accounts and the recovery of the broad market from the depths of the financial crisis, but brokerage executives said distrust of the markets and trading remains a problem.

"Investors are still spooked," said Taft, a former chairman of the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the U.S. brokerage industry's principal trade group.

IPO ALARMS

That Facebook blew up after weeks of anticipatory headlines is proving to be an object lesson to retail investors.

"There is an incredible amount of empirical evidence that retail investors should not be buying IPOs," said Henry Hu, a securities and finance professor at the University of Texas Law School. "Insiders always know more and the pricing is incredibly subtle."

The apparent mispricing of Facebook shares by underwriters and the deal's large float give the impression that Wall Street enjoys "squeezing every dime out of investors' pockets," likely hurts Facebook's ability to sell future offerings and exposes the company and its underwriters to litigation, he said.

IPOs are subject to Section 11 of the Securities Act of 1933, which sets higher standards of due diligence than other antifraud provisions of the securities law. "Section 11 is promised land for plaintiffs' attorneys," said Hu, who was the first head of the Securities and Exchange Commission's division of risk, strategy and financial innovation.

SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro told reporters Tuesday that there is still "a lot of reason to have confidence in our markets and in the integrity of how they operate," but one of her predecessors was less cheery.

"It's an event with long-lasting negative implications for an industry that can ill afford this kind of blemish," former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt said in an interview.

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Comments (2)
RangerDan wrote:
I’m sorry, but what did anybody expect? Facebook peaked last year, at $100B it is way overvalued. If FB was trying to raise capital for building and acquiring, great, but Zuckerberg and the other stockholders that were onboard from the beginning were cashing out. They were assuring themselves of being wealthy when/if FB were to go the way of many other dot coms before them.

May 25, 2012 4:29pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
tdlane wrote:
Hello Mom & Pop Investor, I’m talking to you. The people who lost big bucks in the Facebook IPO were investors who were taking huge risks in the hope that they would make some big bucks that same day. Unless you have a lot of money you can afford to lose with such gambles, you shouldn’t be making such wagers. In this case, the term “small investor”, or even “individual investor” is somewhat misleading. The best way to invest in the market is to diversify your holdings, and don’t sell them when the market is down. You can sit on your cash if you want, but you will be losing value to inflation for certain that way.

May 25, 2012 4:42pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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