Will Zuckerberg’s Massive AI Bet Be a Boom or Bust for META Stock?

Stocks to sell

A dozen years ago, Meta Platforms (NASDAQ:META) CEO Mark Zuckerberg made business history by betting Facebook on open source clouds, and META stock benefitted. Facebook was just coming public, its market cap an “astounding” $104 billion.

It had revenue of $3.71 billion the year before but just $1 billion in operating cash flow. The cost of getting into cloud at the time was about $1 billion per quarter. Zuckerberg won that bet. Now he’s making the same gamble, only with $135 billion in 2023 revenue and a market cap of $1.19 trillion. Wall Street is all-in with him. Let’s take a look at META stock.

META Stock and the Cost of AI

The bet this time is up to $37 billion in capital spending this year alone. This goes on top of a 50 cent/share dividend (costing $5 billion for the year) promised in its last earnings release, and continuing stock buybacks, up to $50 billion.

Why are analysts so certain Meta has this right? One reason is the open source approach Meta is using in building its models. This means it’s not bearing the full cost of its AI development, unlike rivals. It also means it lacks full control over the results.

Meta is confident because this is what it did back in the day. It founded the Open Compute Foundation to cut the costs of cloud development by sharing best practices. The board now has members from Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG)(NASDAQ:GOOGL) and Intel (NASDAQ:INTC).

But this effort is more controversial. Rival OpenAI, which began as open source, now says AI creation is too important to be shared. Zuckerberg’s promises, meanwhile, seem as outrageous as those of OpenAI CEO Sam Altman’s, to build “artificial general intelligence.”

Question is, how do you make money off any of it?

Meta’s AI Business Model

Meta isn’t promising big financial results from AI this year.

There are already some non-financial results. Meta is using AI to rank content on its social media platforms. It has created “system cards” telling content developers what they should and shouldn’t do. The aim is to increase engagement, while filtering out content deemed harmful, like politics.

The idea is to let advertisers feel safe when buying Reels, Instagram and (soon) Threads ads. This is Advantage+, a collection of AI tools specifically for advertisers, automating campaigns.

How much Meta can make from ads will, as with Amazon’s (NASDAQ:AMZN) Prime Video, be measured by how much it charges people to avoid them. European regulators are fuming over Meta’s proposal to charge users for opting out of its ads and user tracking. But the price it puts on that service will tell analysts its value.

This means that what’s making the headlines, its use of Facebook and Instagram images to create new images, are just a sideline. It’s something of a magic trick. Critics can focus on Meta’s development of user tools while the money comes rolling in from better ad targeting.

The Bottom Line

Many analysts believe Meta’s AI strategy makes a valuation of almost 9 times revenue reasonable. Its strategic investments in AI, as well as augmented and virtual reality (Reality Labs has lost $42 billion so far) look certain to pay off.

But will they? Zuckerberg insists the layoffs that are still continuing have nothing to do with AI. Older technologies were just “overbuilt,” he says.

This doesn’t pass the laugh test. Even bullish investors see Meta as fully valued now. Its outlook is overshadowing its results.

When that happens with any stock, it’s a danger signal. If you’re heavily into Meta stock It’s time to take some profits and, when the inevitable negative headlines come in, look for another buy point.

As of this writing, Dana Blankenhorn had LONG positions in AMZN, GOOGL, INTC and MSFT. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, subject to the InvestorPlace.com Publishing Guidelines.

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