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It’s been a brutal few months for Facebook investors.
Shares of the social network have tumbled almost 40 percent since reaching a high on July 25, even after a modest rebound on Monday. The company has faced a barrage of attacks related to the numerous ways the platform has been manipulated to spread false information and for leadership’s insufficient and controversial response, which the New York Times detailed in a lengthy investigative report earlier this month.
Some of the almost $200 billion of market value that’s been wiped out since the stock’s peak can be attributed to a broader sell-off in tech stocks, which have plummeted since August amid concern about a slowdown in global economic growth and President Trump’s threats of a trade war. But Facebook’s slide started well before that and the stock has badly underperformed the Nasdaq and its big-tech peers this year.
The problem for Facebook is in finding a way out.
Facebook’s business model, which relies on a growing number of users to share more information and for advertisers to continue to pay up to reach them, starts to look shaky as trust in the network deteriorates. Yet at the top of the company, CEO Mark Zuckerberg, 34, has so much ownership and control that the board and shareholders have a very limited ability to exert any influence.
“Facebook has lost the trust of its constituency and to get it back they will need to do something significant,” said Daniel Newman, principal analyst at Futurum Research, which focuses on digital technology. “Their PR ploys so far have been empty and insufficient, and with growth already stalling they need to start changing sentiment now.”
One idea that’s picked up steam is for Zuckerberg to relinquish his position as chairman of the board, thus separating the CEO and chair roles.
It would be a dramatic step. The boards of founder-controlled tech companies are often run by the CEO. That lists includes Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Salesforce’s Marc Benioff and Netflix’s Reed Hastings, who’s also a Facebook director.
But some investors say it’s past time that Zuckerberg bring in a fresh voice. In October, the state treasurers of Illinois, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania and the comptroller of New York City joined a shareholder proposal by Trillium Asset Management, calling on Facebook to split up the positions.
The proposal, which will be voted on at Facebook’s next shareholder meeting in 2019, cited Facebook’s mishandling of issues including Russian meddling in the the U.S. elections, the Cambridge Analytica scandal involving data sharing, depression and other mental health problems stemming from use of the service and the ability for advertisers to exclude certain minority groups from seeing ads.
Jonas Kron, senior vice president of Trillium, which owns about 53,000 Facebook shares, told CNBC last week that recent activity “makes it abundantly clear that an independent board chair is necessary.”
Zuckerberg’s dual roles as CEO and chairman prevent Facebook’s board from acting independently and providing oversight, Kron said. As an example, he referenced the board’s decision to issue a statement on Nov. 15, following the New York Times story, saying it supported the top two executives — Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg.
“The chair is Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl sits on that board,” Kron said. “So that was basically Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg saying they stand by Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.”
Thus far, Zuckerberg has rejected the proposal. Since starting Facebook out of his Harvard dorm room in 2004, Zuckerberg has maintained almost complete control over the company and still owns 60 percent of voting shares, giving him ultimate say over his own fate.
“I’m not currently thinking that that makes sense,” Zuckerberg told CNN last week, when asked if he would consider giving up the chairman role.
In the CNN interview, Zuckerberg also praised Sandberg and said he hoped the two would continue working together for several more years. That came shortly after a Wall Street Journal report, which said Zuckerberg blamed Sandberg and her teams for many of the problems plaguing the company.
A Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment for this story.
From a financial perspective, Facebook has shown some signs of strain. Last month, the company reported disappointing numbers for revenue and daily active users and also told investors that costs are going to rise 40 percent to 50 percent next year.
This is new territory for Facebook.The company has held such a dominant position in social networking and mobile advertising that its past issues around privacy, while they may have hurt the company’s image, didn’t result in users abandoning the site or marketers turning off their spending.
Analysts aren’t convinced that Facebook can maintain its grip this time.
Scott Devitt of Stifel Nicolaus lowered his price target on the stock on Monday to $150 from $186, becoming the latest analyst to express skepticism. On Nov. 19, Pivotal Research’s Brian Wieser reiterated his “sell” rating and $125 stock price, stressing that “advertiser concerns about morality at Facebook are real.”
James Brumley, an analyst at InvestorPlace, said that the string of damaging stories are coming out at a time when Facebook’s core products are already losing relevance.
“Not enough people are still interested in Facebook any longer, and they’ve grown particularly tired of the same drudgery — political bickering, an overwhelming number of vanity-driven posts and what feels like increasingly aggressive advertising efforts,” said Brumley. “Ask the average Facebook user how they feel about the site, and the answer is along the lines of, ‘meh.’ It’s not what it used to be.”
Zuckerberg has a lot to fix.
He needs users to trust that the posts they see are real and that their data is secure. At the same time, he has to deliver fresh products to keep users engaged and open up future growth possibilities. And he has to be able to recruit and retain talent in the Bay Area, where competition for engineers is higher than ever.
But to investors, who have seen the value of their holdings plummet of late, the number one problem today is that Zuckeberg isn’t accountable to anyone other than himself.
“There’s nobody who Zuckerberg has to report to or listen to to ensure he doesn’t make stupid decisions,” said Julie Goodridge, CEO of Northstar Asset Management, which owns 23,500 Facebook shares. “There’s no checks and balances.”