Facebook Q4 2020 Tops Estimates, Worries Wall Street

According to Facebook earnings, released Wednesday after the market’s close, the pandemic has been very good to the company. But that didn’t appease Wall Street, which fretted over Facebook advertising, thanks to headwinds poised to bear down on the business.

The fourth quarter, which covered the holiday season, juiced the social media giant’s business, sending its numbers sailing over expectations. The company easily beat analysts’ predictions of earnings per share of $3.22 on $26.43 billion in revenue, with actual reporting of EPS of $3.88 on revenue of $28.07 billion, a 33 percent year-over-year increase. That represents the company’s fastest growth rate in more than two years.

The peak shopping period, along with the public’s rush to online spaces during the lockdowns and quarantines over the past year, sent traffic surging to Facebook apps and bolstered its ad business. Efforts to reach out to independent businesses appear to have paid off, feeding into the main platform’s massive numbers.

As Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer, explained on the call, “2.6 billion people now use one or more of our apps each day and more than 200 million businesses — mostly small businesses — use our free tools to reach customers.” The company also revealed that daily active users had reached 1.84 billion people and pointed out that more than 600 million people belong to Facebook groups.

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Yet Facebook shares dropped in after-hours trading, from 4 percent to as much as 6 percent at one point.

The reason for the fears could be read in between the lines of Facebook chief financial officer David Wehner’s prepared statement, released ahead of the call.

“We believe our business has benefited from two broad economic trends playing out during the pandemic,” Wehner explained. “The first is the ongoing shift toward online commerce. The second is the shift in consumer demand toward products and away from services. We believe these shifts provided a tailwind to our advertising business in the second half of 2020 given our strength in product verticals sold via online commerce and our lower exposure to service verticals like travel.

“Looking forward,” he added, “a moderation or reversal in one or both of these trends could serve as a headwind to our advertising revenue growth.”

Those headwinds could complicate Facebook’s business, particularly its ad targeting model.

Zuckerberg was more specific on the call, particularly in blaming Apple. After criticizing the iPhone maker for months, it’s still rather clear that Apple is living rent-free in the Facebook CEO’s mind.

“I do want to highlight that we increasingly see Apple as one of our biggest competitors,” he said. “iMessage is a key weapon of their ecosystem. It comes preinstalled on every iPhone and they prefaced it with private APIs and permissions … now we are also seeing Apple’s business depend more and more on gaining share in apps and services against us and other developers.”

The comments were designed to defend policy changes that suggested WhatsApp, an app known for encrypted messaging, would share data with Facebook. The move set off an exodus of users. Now, Facebook was trying to draw a favorable comparison with iMessage.

Then Zuckerberg segued into a deeper worry that an iOS 14 update will scuttle ad targeting, and that Apple is doing it intentionally and unfairly.

“Apple has every incentive to use their dominant platform position to interfere with how our apps and other apps work, which they regularly do to preference their own,” he said, “and this impacts the growth of millions of businesses around the world, including with the upcoming iOS 14 changes, many small businesses will no longer be able to reach their customers with targeted ads.

“Now, Apple may say that they’re doing this to help people, but the moves clearly track their competitive interests,” he added.

The change would require developers to explicitly ask users for permission before they could track their data. The update is potentially devastating to third parties that depend on ad targeting. Like Facebook.

While that future remains uncertain, the company took a moment to lay out a four-pronged foundation for its vision of 2021: Zuckerberg explained that the areas he was most excited about for the year are “communities, private messaging, commerce tools for small businesses and building the next computing platform.”

He was pointing toward alternate reality technologies, like augmented reality and virtual reality, both of which Facebook is deeply invested in. The company owns VR outfit Oculus, which saw a spike in sales for its latest VR headset, the Oculus Quest 2, over the holidays. It also previously revealed plans to develop AR glasses and other connected glasses, alongside partners like EssilorLuxottica.

This is poised to become another battleground between the tech competitors, as Apple is also believed to be developing AR glasses.

Meanwhile, Apple also released earnings on Wednesday and had a gangbusters quarter, with more than $100 billion in revenue, a first for the company, thanks to soaring iPhone and iPad sales.

As for commerce tools, Facebook listed out its various moves in 2020 — from launching a one-stop destination to spin up a Facebook and Instagram Shop, new merchant messaging features through WhatsApp and Messenger, the expansion of Checkout for all U.S. businesses, the launch of Paid Online Events and other updates.

What was clear is that WhatsApp will be a key part of future commerce plans. Facebook pointed out that more than 175 million people message a WhatsApp business account daily, and it’s building more features to make it easy to transact in the app.

“We introduced Carts which lets people grab catalogs, select multiple products and send the order as a message to the business. And the more people that interact with businesses, the better tools that we’re going to need to provide for businesses to help them support their customers,” the CEO said.

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