The announcement Thursday by the Mountain View, Calif.-based company, the No. 1 Web search provider, that it will go public has created the biggest high-tech IPO frenzy since the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. Google's IPO could value the company at $20 billion — or a lot more.
"Google has the ability to be the kind of company where people say 'I want to buy it, I don't care what the price is,"' said Michael Boone, a certified financial planner and president of MWBoone & Associates in Bellevue, Washington.
The frenzy, however, creates a real possibility that investors will overpay for Google shares, though the company is profitable and might have years of growth to come.
"I'd use the lower end of the expected capitalization, divide that by the number of shares, and that might be a reasonable price to bid," said Lew Altfest, a CFP and president of L.J. Altfest & Co. in New York. "But investor enthusiasm for IPOs is being rekindled, and this is a very sexy offering."
Or, as Michael Holland, founder of New York's Holland & Co., put it, "It's still in the category of caveat emptor, buyer beware."
Google plans to price its IPO through an open bidding process known as a "Dutch auction (search)."
Investors will submit bids that include the price they are willing to pay and the number of shares they want. Google would determine the "clearing price" at which there is demand for all shares being offered. The actual IPO price would be at or below the clearing price.
Unlike in some Dutch auctions, investors will be unable to see other bids. This might lead to inflated bids if investors figure they are bidding more than the eventual clearing price.
Bad idea, Boone said.
"Most people who bought a house are familiar with the idea of comparables, where you look at similar offerings," he said. "You can do the same thing with a stock, (such as by looking at) revenue growth and earnings growth. Once you do that, you have to ask yourself what is different, if anything, about Google, and does it deserve to be more richly priced."
Indeed, if enough investors bid high enough, the clearing price could soar, leaving investors holding a stock that was possibly seriously overpriced. This could lead to what Google called the "winner's curse" — when shareholders realize they overpaid, sell to cut their losses and drive the stock down further.
"Investors may want to ask themselves why they need to buy Google through an IPO," said Anthony Ogorek, a CFP who runs Ogorek Wealth Management LLC in Buffalo, New York. "With IPOs, if it's a great deal, you're not getting any of it."
Last year, Google earned $105.6 million on revenue of $961.9 million, and first-quarter profit and revenue more than doubled from a year earlier.
But whether Google can sustain such strong profit and revenue growth — or the growth investors demand — is an open question. And the market is littered with the carcasses of the Netscapes, the Boston Chickens, and the dozens of other once-hot IPOs that investors later spurned.
"You may well have an opportunity six months down the road to buy Google at a reasonable price, if investor enthusiasm moves on to the next fashionable stock," Altfest said.
Of course, people who buy enough IPO shares can become very wealthy. Just ask some early Microsoft Corp. investors.
If an investor bought $10,000 worth of Microsoft (MSFT) stock when it came public in 1986, that investor would be sitting on more than $3.5 million as of Friday's close.
"Investors who overbid are buying into the mass psychology of people who were not able to get into Microsoft — that lightning will strike twice, and its name is Google," said Ogorek. "To anyone who says that, they only need to remember the recent 3-year stock bear market."