Facebook blows past profit estimates, sets aside US$3b for privacy penalty

Facebook said it had set aside US$3 billion to pay any fine by the US Federal Trade Commission. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SAN FRANCISCO (REUTERS) - Facebook Inc on Wednesday (April 24) blew away Wall Street profit estimates in the first quarter as it kept a lid on the costs of making its social networks safer, and set aside US$3 billion (S$4.09 billion) to cover a settlement with United States regulators, calming investors who had worried about the outcome of a months-long federal probe.

Shares of the world's biggest online social network jumped more than 10 per cent after hours.

The US Federal Trade Commission has been investigating revelations that Facebook inappropriately shared information belonging to 87 million of its users with the now-defunct British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.

The probe has focused on whether the sharing of data and other disputes violated a 2011 agreement with the FTC to safeguard user privacy. Facebook set aside US$3 billion to cover anticipated costs associated with the settlement, but said the charges could reach as high as US$5 billion.

If the settlement is in that range, it would be the largest civil penalty paid to the agency, said Mr David Vladeck, a former FTC official now at Georgetown Law School.

"Everyone expected there would be a substantial civil penalty in this case," said Vladeck. "There's no question that Facebook is going to have to settle this matter. Investors want this behind them."

The accrual cut the company's net income in the first quarter to US$2.43 billion, or US$0.85 per share.

Excluding the US$3 billion it set aside, Facebook would have earned US$1.89 a share, up from US$1.69 the year prior and easily beating analysts' average estimate of US$1.63 per share, according to IBES data from Refinitiv.

Total first-quarter revenue rose 26 per cent to US$15.1 billion from US$12.0 billion last year, compared to analysts' average estimate of US$15.0 billion.

Shares of Facebook rose 10 per cent to US$200.50 in after-hours trade, demonstrating the company's resilience despite a series of scandals over improperly shared user data and propaganda that made it the target of political scrutiny across the globe.

The company's shares lost a third of their value last year, after executives first warned about costs associated with its drive to improve safety and slowing growth in revenue and operating margin.

Total expenses in the first quarter were US$11.8 billion, up 80 per cent compared with a year ago. The operating margin fell to 22 per cent from 46 per cent a year ago, but would have been 42 per cent without the one-time expense.

"This is a strong report suggesting that advertisers still see value in Facebook's platform, as they did before the controversies and scandals erupted," said Mr Haris Anwar, senior analyst at financial markets platform Investing.com.

Executives have forecast that expenses will grow 40 to 50 per cent in 2019, but say they expect the downward trend to taper off after this year as revenue from new ways of pushing ads and facilitating transactions offset the security spending.

Monthly and daily users of the main Facebook app compared to last quarter were both up 8 per cent to 2.38 billion and 1.56 billion, respectively.

Estimates were for 2.4 billion monthly users and 1.6 billion daily users, according to Refinitiv averages.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.