Wall Street much quicker to applaud Facebook than criticize it

(Reuters) - A month of darkening sentiment around Facebook Inc FB.O among analysts was washed away in an instant when the social media's earnings report blew through even the most optimistic earnings estimates.

Figurines are seen in front of the Facebook logo in this illustration taken March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

The response was classic Wall Street, where the traditional tendency has been to be far quicker with praise than with criticism.

Less than 24 hours after the earnings release late on Wednesday, roughly a quarter of the 45 analysts covering the stock had by Thursday raised their price targets, including at least five brokerages that cut their views after the Cambridge Analytica data scandal broke last month.

Facebook’s shares, meanwhile, surged 9.1 percent on Thursday to $174.16, their highest in a month. The stock still had nearly 6 percent to climb to erase all its losses related to the matter.

With the ebullient reaction, the average price target on Facebook shares rose $2.21 on Thursday to $218.27, according to Thomson Reuters data, its highest in three weeks and about 20 percent above the latest price.

By contrast it took three weeks for the mean price target to drop from its pre-scandal high of $222.81, as the same number of analysts cut their targets one or two at a time as it slowly sunk in that the imbroglio would not pass quickly.

Notably, even as analysts trimmed their estimates for how high the shares could rise while the Cambridge Analytica story dominated the news for weeks, most held firm in their overall positive opinion of the stock.

The mean rating on Facebook’s shares has stayed “buy,” with 41 analysts rating the stock “strong buy” or “buy,” two “hold” and 2 “sell” or “strong sell.”

Morgan Stanley was among those raising its target on the stock on Thursday, to $210 from $200. Three weeks earlier it had cut it from $230. The brokerage said Facebook was investing to improve not only its core ad business but also its safety and security measures.

“These investments plant the seeds for Facebook to continue to grow its user base, engagement, and monetization for the next 3-5 years,” said Brian Nowak, who rates the stock “overweight.”

But not all analysts who soured on the stock recently found enough cheer in the results to alter their forecast on the stock’s trajectory.

Among them was Pivotal Research Group’s Brian Wieser – the top rated Facebook analyst for his recommendation accuracy, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine.

“Broader concerns about the business and stock remain, and we maintain our $138 price target along with our Sell recommendation on the stock.”

Reporting by Savio D’Souza in Bengaluru; Editing by Dan Burns and Cynthia Osterman