Facebook Earnings: How Long Can This Monstrous Growth Persist?

By Daniel SparksInnovatorsFool.com

Following its mind-boggling 56% year-over-year jump in third-quarter revenue, Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) has quite the act to follow when it reports its fourth-quarter results after the bell on Wednesday. But with the social network's fourth-quarter lapping a year-ago quarter when the company posted an impressive 44% jump in revenue, are Facebook's growth rates finally about to begin coming down?

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Here's a close look at what to expect from Facebook's revenue growth in the fourth quarter, as well as an overview of some other key areas to watch when the social network reports results.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Image source: Facebook.

Expect Revenue Growth to Decelerate

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For Facebook's fourth quarter, management specifically warned that revenue growth could come down as the company laps a strong fourth quarter in 2015.

"We continue to expect that revenue growth rates will decline in Q4 as we lap a strong fourth quarter in 2015," said Facebook CFO David Wehner in the company's third-quarter earnings call.

In addition, Facebook says it expects revenue from its "payments and other fees" segment, which accounts for under 3% of Facebook's total revenue, to "be lower than it was in the fourth quarter of last year." This would continue a trend of declining revenue in this small segment in Facebook's third quarter.

Depending on how much revenue could slow, it will be interesting to see how this impacts Facebook's earnings growth. The more Facebook's revenue growth exceeds its growth in expenses, the more rapidly the company's earnings per share increases. This trend has helped Facebook's trailing-12-month earnings per share skyrocket 160%. But this heady rate can come down quickly as Facebook's revenue growth rate falls.

However, while Facebook's revenue growth should come down in the company's fourth quarter, the growth will likely still be robust since management expects its growing ad load to continue to help drive revenue growth until about the middle of 2017.

Look for Facebook's fourth-quarter revenue to increase at a rate of about 45% year over year.

Healthy User Growth Should Continue

Facebook's user growth across its social platforms in 2016 has been very strong, and there's no sign of growth slowing anytime soon. While the company doesn't provide detailed updates on WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram very often, investors should expect an update on the company's core Facebook platform's user metrics.

Management said Facebook's monthly active users hit 1.79 billion in the company's most recent quarter up 16% year over year. Investors should expect similar year-over-year growth in monthly active users in 4Q.

While there's no guarantee Facebook will provide updated metrics on its other social communities, the last updates for WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram pegged the two messaging apps at 1 billion monthly active users and the photo- and video-sharing app at 600 million monthly active users.

Plan for Slower Growth and Bigger Spending in 2017

Finally, investors may want to turn their attention to any guidance and commentary related to 2017.

In Facebook's third-quarter conference call, management importantly noted it expected its advertising revenue growth to drop meaningfully in the second half of 2017 as the company's growth in ad load tapers off.

Image source: The Motley Fool.

In addition, management said it expects 2017 to be "an aggressive investment year," as the social network prioritizes hiring top engineering talent and increases capital expenditures "substantially" to fund its ongoing data center expansion efforts.

More color on Facebook's expected 2017 revenue and expenses trajectories could provide better insight into what to expect from Facebook going forward.

Facebook will release its fourth-quarter earnings report after market close on Wednesday, Feb. 1.

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Daniel Sparks owns shares of Facebook. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Facebook. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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