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Twitter IPO nears; can company make money?

By Bernard Condon
Associated Press

NEW YORK It can help overthrow dictators. But can it make money?

Protesters famously used Twitter to organize during the Arab Spring three years ago. President Barack Obama announced his 2012 re-election victory using the short messaging service. Lady Gaga tweets. So does the pope.

But for all its power and reach, Twitter gushes losses – $65 million in the third quarter, nearly three times more than it lost a year ago.

As Wall Street analysts size up Twitter ahead of its first public stock sale, more than a few are expressing concern about the company’s lack of profits.

Those misgivings are echoed by average investors. Some 47 percent of Americans believe Twitter won’t be a good investment, according to a recent AP-CNBC poll.

Twitter was expected to set the price for its IPO on Wednesday night and begin trading on the New York Stock Exchange Thursday under the symbol TWTR.

Of course, a company’s pre-IPO losses are no indication its stock will do poorly. Amazon.com had big losses before it went public 16 years ago and still occasionally posts them. Yet its stock is up more than 18,000 percent since the IPO.

Even so, future Twitter shareholders poring over the company’s more than 200-page IPO document are being asked to take a leap of faith. The document never makes clear when the company will sell enough ads to stanch the red ink and deliver sustainable profits.

What’s Twitter’s sales pitch to potential investors?

“They’re taking you to the edge of a swamp and saying, ‘Someday, this is going to be paradise,’” says Anthony Catanach, a professor of accounting at Villanova University.

Pessimists who have gazed at that swamp believe Twitter is going public too soon but can’t resist exploiting a market in which investors are eager to look past losses as stock prices soar to record highs. Optimists refuse to believe a company that has turned itself into a worldwide water cooler in just seven years can’t make big money – at least someday.

“Twitter is in its infancy, and it’s a site a lot more people will go to,” says Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. “They'll figure out how to sell advertising.”

As with any company in the early stages of building its business, investors should expect plenty of hiccups – and in surprising places.

Take Twitter’s supposed strength: all those users accessing it via smartphones. Skeptics say that because of the small screen, Twitter could easily alienate users as it tries to squeeze in more tweets from advertisers.

One thing Twitter pessimists can’t deny about the IPO: The timing seems perfect. The tech-heavy Nasdaq index is up 30 percent in 2013, and the stocks of plenty of unprofitable companies have soared.

Zynga, a maker of games played over the Internet, is losing money this year and is expected to do the same in 2014. Its stock is up 56 percent this year. Yelp, the user-generated review site, is a big money loser, too. Its stock has more than tripled.

“People get very excited about social media,” says Villanova’s Catanach. “The passionate user-base wants to invest.”

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