Google Inc., the most highly anticipated stock offering of the year, said yesterday it plans to go public at a price that would make the Internet search company worth more than General Motors Corp. in the stock market and make its young co-founders the nation's newest billionaires, at least on paper.
In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Google estimated a price range of $108 to $135 per share and said it would trade under the ticker symbol GOOG.
At that per-share price, the stock would be one of the most expensive in history for an initial public offering and would be about 150 times Google's annual per-share profit. Some analysts, pointing out that the stock market's historical price-to-earnings ratio is closer to 20, took Google's announcement as a sign that the Internet bubble was returning.
As if to emphasize the sometimes fragile nature of online business, a new computer virus yesterday attacked Google and other search sites, blocking or slowing access for hours for millions of computer users.
If the deal goes as planned, Google would have a stock market value of $32 billion, some $10 billion higher than General Motors Corp., the nation's biggest automaker; double that of Amazon.com Inc., the online bookseller; and in the range of Google's chief competitor in search, Yahoo Inc., which is larger and has a more diverse business.
"There is no way to look at it as anything but frothy, to say the least," said Tom Taulli, an expert on initial public offerings.
Co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page would have a combined stake in the company worth between $9 billion and $10 billion after the offering, vaulting them into the ranks of the nation's richest men only a handful of years after they founded the company after meeting in a PhD program at Stanford University.
While computer users around the world access Google to search the Internet for information free of charge, the company derives virtually all of its sales and profit from ads that accompany the search results.
Google disclosed yesterday that its profit soared in the first six months of 2004 to $143 million, compared with nearly $58 million in the same period last year. Sales reached $1.4 billion, up from about $560 million in the first half of 2003.
According to the SEC filing, Google's public offering would be a big payday for insiders who already own stock in the privately held firm, making the offering by a company that bills itself as unconventional quite traditional by Wall Street standards.
Google co-founders Brin and Page each plan to sell just under 1 million shares, worth about $100 million, while keeping nearly all of their stock.
David Cheriton, the Stanford University computer professor who was a mentor to Brin and Page, is planning to sell 340,436 shares, worth an estimated $41.4 million, about 10 percent of his holdings. Stanford University is also planning to sell some of its stock -- 184,207 shares, worth about $22.4 million.
Yahoo, Google's primary competitor, also was an early investor in the company. It plans to sell 549,888 shares, worth about $66.8 million. Dulles-based America Online Inc., a division of Time Warner Inc., filed to sell 743,745 shares, or about 10 percent of its stake, worth about $90 million at the proposed offering price.
Other major shareholders selling in the upcoming initial public offering include Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Sequoia Capital, the two major Silicon Valley-based venture capital firms that provided just over $2 million each in seed money for the company and then put pressure on Google's founders to take the company public so they could cash in. The firms plan to sell about 10 percent of their holdings, worth over $250 million each, according to public filings.
As part of its disclosures yesterday, Google also said that its general counsel, David C. Drummond, has been advised by the SEC that it is considering an enforcement action against him for alleged violations of securities law in his work at SmartForce, an education software firm where he worked for about three years before joining Google in 2002.
The company said in a statement that "none of the allegations involve Google." Drummond, who plans to contest the SEC's action, also indicated plans to sell 50,138 Google shares, worth an estimated $6.1 million, and plans to hold onto 952,626 shares, worth more than $100 million on paper.
It was clear from fresh disclosures yesterday about its strong financial performance that Google does not immediately need the $1.7 billion the company would raise from the stock sale. About $1.3 billion more would be raised by the other selling shareholders, bringing the total size of the offering to roughly $3 billion.
In all, 24.6 million -- or about 9 percent -- of Google shares will be available for public trading, the company said. Taulli said that when such a small piece of a company is public, its share price can swing wildly and be more easily manipulated. Yahoo, in contrast, has more than 1 billion shares of stock outstanding.
"I think this will be a volatile stock," Taulli said. "Individual investors should be wary."
Google's actual offering price will be set in an auction, which the company plans to conduct with the help of Wall Street firms as early as next month. Investors will be able to submit bids higher or lower than the suggested range of $108 to $135 per share.
With Google the talk of Wall Street yesterday, some saw a need for caution reflected in the rapid proliferation of the computer virus MyDoom, the newest version of a virus that first appeared in January.
It temporarily prevented many people from getting to the search pages of Google and some of its competitors.
"No matter how big and successful you are, there is always the prospect in the blink of an eye that the business can go down for a period of time," said Scott Kessler, an analyst with Standard & Poor's.
"As vulnerable as the Internet is, that is how vulnerable these companies may be."