Until now, it has been advisable to take rumours of an imminent Facebook IPO with a large pinch of salt.

Yet according to one person familiar with the company’s planning, all the pieces are now in place for a Wall Street debut that could come in the second quarter of next year – even if that timing has yet to be finalised.

You only have to look back at all the over-heated reports from earlier this year to realise that there has been much more noise than substance on this issue. It is easy to see why the speculation has been so intense: bankers have been falling over each other in their efforts to court the company and have not been shy about promoting their ideas in the media.

One side-effect of all this has been to antagonise Facebook, some of whose executives have suspected the bankers of trying to bounce them into a deal before they were ready. Not since Google’s IPO in 2004 has a company so consciously sought to stand back from the Wall Street hype-cycle – though, when the time finally comes, it will be impossible to control the hysteria.

As we reported in September, Facebook has deliberately put back the IPO process, fending off the inevitable in an effort to keep its employees wholly focused on the task at hand.

The calendar is finally catching up, though. The key date in the diary is April: that is when the company will have to publish its finances, under the US rule that requires companies with more than 500 shareholders to register with the SEC. At that point, it makes sense to move ahead with the IPO process that its executives have said is an inevitable part of their future.

Facebook has already done much of the work needed to prepare for an IPO, according to the person familiar with its planning. This will not be like the normal process, where a company holds a lengthy “beauty parade” to select investment banks for the deal, then lets its advisers guide it through the process of preparing a filing and jumping through the various hoops required by the SEC. Instead, Facebook believes it is already in a strong position to forge ahead.

The only remaining question, as always, is: When?

Three months ago, as we reported, the company was thinking of holding off until the third quarter of 2012, or maybe even later. Now, says the person familiar with its thinking, it is seriously looking at moving ahead earlier, in the second quarter of next year (this was first reported on Monday by the Wall Street Journal.)

The date has yet to be set in stone and no banks have been hired. The European financial crisis adds a big element of uncertainty beyond the company’s control, our source warns. Yet it looks like the Facebook IPO machine may finally be cranking into gear.

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