Clumsy Google a laughing stock

A surprise corporate misstep and under target quarterly results wiped US$20 billion off the US technology giant's market value in minutes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 October, 2012, 3:14am

It was a humiliating corporate gaffe the likes of which few can recall, particularly from a giant tech company like Google.

Google, which was supposed to release earnings after the closing bell on Thursday, jumped the gun and inadvertently dropped a disappointing third-quarter earnings report on unsuspecting investors during midday trading.

Within minutes, the surprise miss and the even more surprising mistake wiped out about US$20 billion in market value before Google asked Nasdaq to halt trading of its shares. Google quickly blamed the blunder on its financial printer, R.R. Donnelley & Sons.

The double whammy undercut three months of sharp gains that had put Google ahead of Microsoft to become the second most valuable technology company after Apple and hammered other technology stocks, including Facebook.

On the web, the incident quickly became a springboard for snarky commentary. Google, the Californian company that prides itself on organising the world's information, had blown it when organising its own.

And Google's very serious chief executive, Larry Page, found himself the brunt of jokes on Twitter. One account was called PendingLarry in honour of the prematurely filed news release, which had "pending" in the space where a quote from Page was supposed to be.

Speaking haltingly in a raspy voice on an afternoon conference call with analysts, Page apologised for the "scramble earlier today".

"As our printers have said, they hit send on the release just a bit early," said Page, who has been skipping earnings calls because of an unspecified illness that the company said makes it difficult for him to talk. "We had a strong quarter and I am very happy with our business.

"It's truly an exciting time to be at Google."

But its earnings release, a quarterly - and usually orderly - ritual, was not supposed to be exciting.

The premature filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that detailed continuing losses at Google's recently acquired mobile phone business, Motorola Mobility, and falling prices for clicks on ads was released in the middle of a news conference that Google was holding to debut its new Chromebook laptop in San Francisco.

The earnings release hours ahead of schedule caught traders off guard and triggered confusion and a sharp sell-off in Google shares. Stock analysts rushed out preliminary takes on the quarter, but the filing exacerbated the stock price decline, they said.

"The problem is when you have a miss and a mistake, you just get total chaos in the market," BGC Partners analyst Colin Gillis said.

It was also an unsettling reminder of Facebook's trading glitches that plagued its stock market debut in May, contributing to the stock's first-day decline. Google's stock, which had surged 27 per cent over the last three months, fell US$60.49, or 8 per cent, to US$695. At one point it dipped more than 10 per cent before trading was halted.

Aside from the public embarrassment, the mishap delayed Google from putting a positive gloss on its earnings - something companies are anxious to do whenever they uncork disappointing results.

Most big firms release profit reports before the stock market opens or after it closes. That gives them the chance to put an upbeat spin on bad news before trading in the shares resumes.

"It is the simplest thing in the world, and they didn't get it right," executive vice-president at financial communications firm Levick Michael Robinson said. "This is like the Three Stooges building a house. Everyone got hurt, and no one looked good doing it."

Google said R.R. Donnelley filed a draft of its earnings "without authorisation". For its part, Donnelley said it was investigating how it happened.

The error probably dinged the confidence of many small investors, who are big holders of Google shares and already reeling from miscues such as the botched handling of Facebook's IPO and the market's "flash crash" plunge two years ago.

"Investors have a lot of reasons … to not trust the markets," Robinson said. "This is another serious blow to investor confidence and trust."

Analysts were most alarmed by the performance of Motorola Mobility, the troubled mobile maker that Google bought for US$12.4 billion. Gillis called it "the Motorola millstone".

Motorola recorded an operating loss of US$527 million, more than triple a year ago when it was a stand-alone company. Google has said it plans to lay off about 20 per cent of the company's 4,000 employees and close a third of its facilities.