Goldman Sachs' Facebook ploy

The investment bank buys, big, into the social network -- and expands a shadow stock market

Published January 3, 2011 10:55PM (EST)

The "great vampire squid" of finance, Goldman Sachs, has invested $450 million in the emerging great vampire squid of cyberspace, Facebook. As the New York Times' DealBook reported, the deal is gives Goldman a leg up on the huge fees investment banks will get when the social-networking company eventually sells shares to the public. And as the Times and Wall Street Journal also report, Goldman will also haul in huge fees from those clients who want to invest themselves.

Meanwhile, Facebook gets the capital to keep buying talent and startups, and to fuel its expansion in all kinds of other ways -- and it gets to sell stock in what amounts to a shadow stock market that's growing faster than regulators seem willing or able to understand, much less deal with.

This looks like a better deal for Facebook than its investor, putting Facebook's value at $50 billion, which makes sense in today's increasingly bubble-like market. Silicon Valley is going a bit wild again-- not as crazy as the late 1990s, mind you, but there's a froth element to the local economy.

An interesting question now is whether Facebook will do a a real public offering anytime soon. Federal rules require significant data disclosures when a company has 500 or more shareholders, and surely Facebook is at that point or nearing it. The Goldman deal may be an end-run around the rule, with Goldman not selling Facebook shares to its clients, but rather selling shares in something it (Goldman) owns. If this is the game, and if the SEC lets it happen, the 500-shareholder rule has become meaningless -- and markets are all the more opaque at a time when transparency is more needed than ever.

Opacity is a growing issue. A thriving shadow marketplace has emerged for big startups that haven't done IPOs, so big that the Securities and Exchange Commission is, at least in that space, looking into the wheeling and dealing. For good reason: Many if not most of the investors in these markets have no idea what the true financial picture may be of the shares they're buying.

Facebook seems like a no-brainer right now. It reportedly has passed Google as the most visited website, and it's growing in power and people. And Goldman, for all its sleazy ways, has smart people making investment decisions.

But Goldman was also a big investor in the financial bubble that nearly toppled the global economy. It escaped ruin only because we, the taxpayers (actually our children and grandchildren) rescued it and the rest of the banking industry. That was and remains Goldman's real genius: making giant bets with other people's money.

By Dan Gillmor

A longtime participant in the tech and media worlds, Dan Gillmor is director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication. Follow Dan on Twitter: @dangillmor. More about Dan here.

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