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Will Facebook earnings be THAT bad?

July 18, 2012: 1:00 PM ET

Is Facebook's future so bright that Mark Zuckerberg has to wear shades? Investors aren't so sure.

Facebook will release its first earnings report as a public company a week from Thursday. Based on how the stock has done recently (and in the two months since making its debut), you'd think that the social network was the next Research in Motion (RIMM), Nokia (NOK), Yahoo (YHOO) or Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) ... you know, tech companies with really questionable futures.

Shares of Facebook (FB) are down more than 10% in just the past week. The stock is only about 10% above its early June low of $25.52. So it begs the question: are earnings really going to be that bad?

Perhaps. If Yahoo's second-quarter earnings are any indication, online ad growth is not all that robust right now. Sure, some of the problems Yahoo is facing in the display (that means banner ads and spots in videos) market are of Yahoo's own making. The company is on its 8th CEO since 2001 for a reason. Google (GOOG) and Facebook are obviously tough competitors for Yahoo. Still, it would be foolish to suggest that Yahoo isn't also being affected by the sluggish global economy.

That may be a legitimate reason for Facebook investors to be worried. Add in the fact that there are still a lot of concerns about whether the company will find a way to make money off of mobile users -- note to CEO Mark Zuckerberg: buying Instagram for the effervescent (not going to use the B-word!) price of more than $1 billion isn't going to be enough -- and it's certainly understandable why there is some doom and gloom heading into Facebook's second-quarter earnings.

Related: Facebook e-mail mess spreads to mobile phones

Yet if we take a step back and look at what analysts are expecting from Facebook, there is still a lot to be enthused about. Facebook may have been a victim of too much hype heading into its IPO. But it's not a fly-by-night firm either, and its fundamentals and business model look far superior to other recent social IPOs like Groupon (GRPN), Zynga (ZNGA) and Pandora (P).

Facebook is expected to report $1.15 billion in revenue during the quarter and a pro-forma profit (excluding some compensation expenses) of $300 million,  or 12 cents a share. (Facebook said in its last registration filing before its IPO that is likely to report an actual net loss due to the issuance of restricted stock units to employees. The consensus estimates from analysts back those costs out.)

It's a mistake to declare that Facebook is a failure because its IPO was  -- to put it mildly -- poorly handled. The company is clearly in a good position to still attract top talent and use its cash hoard -- which now likely tops $10 billion -- to "acqhire" developers at innovative start-ups.

And say what you want about Zuckerberg's idiosyncratic nature, he still deserves a lot of credit for building Facebook into the social media juggernaut that it is. Plus, with Google veteran Sheryl Sandberg as its COO, Zuckerberg has a top-notch lieutenant who knows how to deal with Wall Street.

Related: What Facebook's IPO really means

However, Facebook's growth is already starting to slow. That may be unacceptable for fickle and demanding short-term-focused investors. Facebook's sales in the second quarter of 2011 were $895 million -- so analysts are only projecting 28% top-line growth from a year ago.

For most companies, a nearly 30% increase in sales is something to celebrate , particularly in this anemic economic environment. But Facebook is not most companies. Facebook's revenue more than doubled from the second quarter of 2010 to the second quarter of 2011. Going from 100%+ growth to 30% is a pretty sharp deceleration. Facebook is going to have to beat revenue and earnings projections to truly excite investors again ... and it may have to do so by a wide margin to make people overlook the fact that the company already seems to be maturing.

At the end of the day, it all comes down to valuation -- and that's Facebook's biggest problem. The company still has a market value of $60 billion, making it worth more than scores of battle-tested, blue chip companies that are generating more in sales and profits.

Facebook is trading at 56 times 2012 earnings estimates. That is too rich, even if Facebook is able to meet analysts' long-term profit growth targets of about 27% a year.

So why invest in Facebook when you can buy Google or Apple (AAPL) at far more attractive prices?

You don't.

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Paul Lamonica
Paul R. La Monica
Assistant Managing Editor, CNNMoney

Paul R. La Monica is an assistant managing editor at CNNMoney. He is the author of the site's daily column, The Buzz, and also tweets throughout the day about the markets and economy @LaMonicaBuzz. La Monica also oversees the site's economic, markets and technology coverage.

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