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Goldman Stake Values Facebook At $50 Billion; Is An IPO Ahead?

The figures are difficult for us mere mortals to get our minds around:

"Facebook, the popular social networking site, has raised $500 million from Goldman Sachs and a Russian investor in a deal that values the company at $50 billion, according to people involved in the transaction. The deal makes Facebook now worth more than companies like eBay, Yahoo and Time Warner." (The New York Times' DealB%k blog)

The Associated Press adds that:

"The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is reportedly looking into the booming trade in privately held shares of popular social networking sites. A big reason the SEC may be curious about the trading of these popular private startups' shares is because once a company hits 500 shareholders, it must disclose certain financial information to the public, even if it hasn't filed for an initial public offering.

"The Times reported that Goldman is planning to create a 'special purpose vehicle' that may be able to circumvent the 500 shareholder rule because it would be managed by Goldman and considered just one investor, even though it could conceivably be pooling investments from thousands of clients."

So, what to make of this?

Fortune magazine's Term Sheet blog says:

"One would have to believe that Goldman did, indeed, get a look behind [Facebook founder Mark] Zuckerberg's financial curtain. It is true that most of the 'Facebook funds' do not have access to the company's financials, but we're talking about an investment that could total $2 billion. I just can't imagine that a firm like Goldman is flying blind on so much cash. What remains to be seen, however, is if it provides any of that underlying info to the clients from whom it hopes to raise the $1.5 billion.

"If not, then the SEC could have the same concerns over investor protections that it has about the other Facebook funds, even though Goldman should be considered a more knowledgeable manager than the others."

And ZDNet's Between the Lines blog says this news makes it more likely that at some point in the not-too-distant future Facebook will become a publicly traded company. Why? Here's what Between the Lines says:

"With the dough, Facebook in theory would never have to go public. ... However, we've seen this movie before. Google followed a similar path and there was so much transparency and scrutiny that the company had to go public. When your privately traded shares are as liquid and popular as publicly traded ones it's about time to launch an IPO. ...

"In many respects, Facebook is already public. The company might as well make it official."

Zuckerberg, asked by 60 Minutes late last year about whether there would ever be an IPO, said "you know, maybe."

Update at 11:40 a.m. ET: Our friends at Planet Money explain "Why You Can't Invest In Facebook (Unless You're A Millionaire)."

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