🔒 Zuckerberg is winning back Wall Street after smart Meta moves: Dave Lee

Meta Platforms Inc.’s strategic financial moves, including its inaugural quarterly stock dividend and a $50 billion share buyback plan, ignited shareholder enthusiasm, boosting the company’s stock by over 15% after hours. Amidst concerns about AI competition and the metaverse, these financial sweeteners provided a temporary distraction. The investment in AI has shown promise, but skepticism looms over metaverse ventures, as operating losses in the Reality Labs segment persist. Despite challenges, Meta’s remarkable turnaround, partly attributed to a leaner workforce, has added $700 billion in value since 2022, securing Zuckerberg’s goals and shareholder support.

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By Dave Lee

Meta Platforms Inc.’s efficiency-obsessed investors don’t like to see the company spend money. Unless — and this will shock you — it’s going into their pockets. 

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The company’s announcement on Thursday that it will pay its first-ever quarterly stock dividend at 50 cents a share — and increase its share buyback plan by $50 billion — set off shareholder fireworks: Up more than 15% after hours, Meta was the best performing of the big tech stocks reporting earnings this week. On Friday, shares rose as much as 21%, poised to add roughly $200 billion to its market value, which would be the biggest single-session addition ever.

These sweeteners helped provide something of a distraction from the unattractive realities of the company’s need to keep up with competitors on artificial intelligence and for Mark Zuckerberg’s passion project of the metaverse.

After a period of heavy layoffs, payroll expenses will begin to increase, the company said, as it shifts to a workforce of more highly paid technical employees in an extremely competitive hiring environment for top AI talent. And as Meta invests in the infrastructure needed to develop and run AI, it warned capital expenditures could be as much as $2 billion more than it had predicted earlier.

Few investors would question Meta’s intentions in investing huge sums into AI, given the immense money-making potential it has for existing apps — not just as tools but as a means to increase use and engagement. Chief Financial Officer Susan Li told investors that AI-powered video recommendations had helped increase daily watch times 25% compared with the period a year earlier.

There’s less confidence, however, that investments in the metaverse will be worth it. In the final quarter of 2023, the Reality Labs segment for the first time surpassed $1 billion in revenue, thanks to new versions of the Quest VR headset and Ray-Ban smart glasses. Great news, right? Alas, operating losses continued to grow ever more ominous: $4.7 billion for the October-December period, compared with $4.3 billion a year ago. Can investors expect things to improve? No. Expect Reality Labs’ costs to “increase meaningfully,” the company said. (Though at least Zuckerberg is no longer alone in backing the technology; Apple’s Vision Pro headset will finally go on sale on Friday.)

Perhaps a fairer reading of Meta investors’ enthusiasm on Thursday was the fact that the dividend has only been made possible thanks to Zuckerberg’s successful execution of a remarkable turnaround over the past year. Meta today is a far cry from the dread felt in early 2022 — and it has added around $700 billion to its value since.

A big part of that is being 19,000 employees lighter. But it also took salvaging its business model from what looked like a serious, some even wondered existential, setback: Apple’s privacy changes made stalking users around the web to power targeted ads much harder. Meta has managed to work around it. Revenue for the quarter was up 25% from a year earlier. Profit tripled. Its forecasts for the current quarter are comfortably above what Wall Street had expected. 

All great stuff. But claims that the “year of efficiency” is extending into 2024, as some analysts have argued, doesn’t seem quite right. It’s more a “year of ‘look over there!’” or “year of yes-we-know-it’s-an-awful-lot-but-on-the-plus-side …” (less snappy, I know). Zuckerberg has bought the time and goodwill to pursue his goals without shareholders complaining about every little move.

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