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Spotify makes its stockmarket debut

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WHEN Spotify, a music-streaming service, went public on April 3rd, its founder, Daniel Ek, rang no bells on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Rather than the “pomp and circumstance” of an initial public offering, the Swedish firm, which is widely credited with turning round the fortunes of the music industry, opted for an unusual direct listing. No new shares were issued. Bankers did not sign up new investors, set a target price or stabilise early trading. Existing investors were simply allowed to trade their shares publicly.

Despite the low-key approach, and even as other tech firms’ shares wobbled, there was plenty of interest. That will cheer other firms considering going public. The share price ended its first trading day at $149, comfortably above prices reached in private markets earlier this year. That values the company at $26.5bn, making it the largest firm to list since Snap last year, and the eighth-largest tech listing ever.

Like many other tech “unicorns”, or startups valued at over a billion dollars, Spotify has yet to turn a profit. With over 70m paying users (see chart) and, by its own estimate, a 40% market share, it has plenty of appeal. But investors will be watching for signs of slowing revenue growth, says Laith Khalaf of Hargreaves Lansdown, a stockbroker. Spotify’s main rivals, Apple, Amazon and Google, have deep pockets. Low prices and bundled services could lure its customers away. If record labels were to demand higher royalties, that would increase its costs.

Traders took a few hours to reach a price—hardly surprising, since sales were not lined up in advance. Oversupply did not flood the market, even though existing shareholders were not subject to the usual lockup period. Nor did undersupply lead to jerky pricing.

Spotify has shown that direct listing is feasible. Matthew Kennedy of Renaissance Capital, a research firm, reckons Spotify saved over $30m in fees to investment banks (although some were paid for advising on the listing).

Bankers need not fret for their futures, however. Spotify was hardly typical of the usual run of firms going to market. Its brand needed no introduction. It did not need to raise capital: the listing was a way for existing shareholders to cash out. Even if another company were in a similar position, its founders might prefer to pay bankers’ fees rather than run the risk of early volatility. And some, no doubt, would like to have their moment in the limelight.

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Japan still has great influence on global financial markets

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IT IS the summer of 1979 and Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, the everyman-hero of John Updike’s series of novels, is running a car showroom in Brewer, Pennsylvania. There is a pervasive mood of decline. Local textile mills have closed. Gas prices are soaring. No one wants the traded-in, Detroit-made cars clogging the lot. Yet Rabbit is serene. His is a Toyota franchise. So his cars have the best mileage and lowest servicing costs. When you buy one, he tells his customers, you are turning your dollars into yen.

“Rabbit is Rich” evokes the time when America was first unnerved by the rise of a rival economic power. Japan had taken leadership from America in a succession of industries, including textiles, consumer electronics and steel. It was threatening to topple the car industry, too. Today Japan’s economic position is much reduced. It has lost its place as the world’s second-largest economy (and primary target of American trade hawks) to China. Yet in one regard, its sway still holds.

This week the board of the Bank of Japan (BoJ) voted to leave its monetary policy broadly unchanged. But leading up to its policy meeting, rumours that it might make a substantial change caused a few jitters in global bond markets. The anxiety was justified. A sudden change of tack by the BoJ would be felt far beyond Japan’s shores.

One reason is that Japan’s influence on global asset markets has kept growing as decades of the country’s surplus savings have piled up. Japan’s net foreign assets—what its residents own abroad minus what they owe to foreigners—have risen to around $3trn, or 60% of the country’s annual GDP (see top chart).

But it is also a consequence of very loose monetary policy. The BoJ has deployed an arsenal of special measures to battle Japan’s persistently low inflation. Its benchmark interest rate is negative (-0.1%). It is committed to purchasing ¥80trn ($715bn) of government bonds each year with the aim of keeping Japan’s ten-year bond yield around zero. And it is buying baskets of Japan’s leading stocks to the tune of ¥6trn a year.

Tokyo storm warning

These measures, once unorthodox but now familiar, have pushed Japan’s banks, insurance firms and ordinary savers into buying foreign stocks and bonds that offer better returns than they can get at home. Indeed, Japanese investors have loaded up on short-term foreign debt to enable them to buy even more. Holdings of foreign assets in Japan rose from 111% of GDP in 2010 to 185% in 2017 (see bottom chart). The impact of capital outflows is evident in currency markets. The yen is cheap. On The Economist’s Big Mac index, a gauge based on burger prices, it is the most undervalued of any major currency.

Investors from Japan have also kept a lid on bond yields in the rich world. They own almost a tenth of the sovereign bonds issued by France, for instance, and more than 15% of those issued by Australia and Sweden, according to analysts at J.P. Morgan. Japanese insurance companies own lots of corporate bonds in America, although this year the rising cost of hedging dollars has caused a switch into European corporate bonds. The value of Japan’s holdings of foreign equities has tripled since 2012. They now make up almost a fifth of its overseas assets.

What happens in Japan thus matters a great deal to an array of global asset prices. A meaningful shift in monetary policy would probably have a dramatic effect. It is not natural for Japan to be the cheapest place to buy a Big Mac, a latté or an iPad, says Kit Juckes of Société Générale. The yen would surge. A retreat from special measures by the BoJ would be a signal that the era of quantitative easing was truly ending. Broader market turbulence would be likely. Yet a corollary is that as long as the BoJ maintains its current policies—and it seems minded to do so for a while—it will continue to be a prop to global asset prices.

Rabbit’s sales patter seemed to have a similar foundation. Anyone sceptical of his mileage figures would be referred to the April issue of Consumer Reports. Yet one part of his spiel proved suspect. The dollar, which he thought was decaying in 1979, was actually about to revive. This recovery owed a lot to a big increase in interest rates by the Federal Reserve. It was also, in part, made in Japan. In 1980 Japan liberalised its capital account. Its investors began selling yen to buy dollars. The shopping spree for foreign assets that started then has yet to cease.

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