Saudi Arabian Oil Co. is considering a plan to split the world’s largest IPO into two stages, debuting a portion of its shares on the Saudi stock exchange later this year, and following up with an international offering in 2020 or 2021, according to people familiar with the plans.
The company is leaning toward Tokyo as the venue for the second phase of its proposed plan, the advisers and officials said, as political uncertainty in the U.K. and China reduces the appeal of London and Hong Kong’s markets.
Saudi Arabia’s state oil giant, also known as Aramco, revived plans to sell 5% of its stock in an initial public offering earlier this month aimed at funding Saudi Arabia’s efforts to diversify its economy beyond oil.
With earnings of $111 billion in 2018, Aramco is the world’s most profitable business, outstripping juggernauts such as Apple Inc. and Exxon Mobil Corp. But the company has seen many twists and turns on the road toward its IPO. Aramco and its advisers drew up for a potential listing in 2018, but the offering never materialized.
Everything from the fundraising amount, to the valuation of the company, to the venue for the listing, has been hotly debated, according to people involved in the discussions. The company had initially targeted raising $100 billion, but it remains unclear what the final number will be.
The outcry that followed the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October also complicated plans to attract investors, according to people familiar with the matter.
According to one plan under consideration, the company could seek to raise as much as $50 billion in a domestic listing, one person said. Both domestic and international investors would have access to the stock in a domestic listing.
If Aramco and its advisers choose Tokyo as the setting for the international offering, it would be a disappointment for London and Hong Kong, which were initially seen as the most likely locations for the listing. Both locales were considered politically safer than the U.S., but are now less likely, the people said.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has pushed for an IPO in New York as a way to deepen Saudi ties with President Trump. But Aramco Chairman Khalid al-Falih has opposed the U.S. option over concerns that Saudi assets could be targeted by terrorism-related lawsuits. The Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, passed in 2016, allows terror victims’ families to sue foreign countries for compensation.
The company could invite antitrust litigation if it were to list there due to its membership in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and the cartel’s efforts to control oil production and prices. Aramco identified the risk of such litigation in its bond-offering prospectus.
London, which has lobbied Saudi Arabia to host the IPO, was seen as a favorite when Prince Mohammed visited the U.K. last year. But the Aramco advisers and Saudi officials said they were increasingly concerned about the regulatory uncertainty that could arise from the U.K.’s plan to leave the European Union on Oct. 31.
On Wednesday, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson moved to shut down Parliament for several weeks, a tactic aimed at preventing opposition lawmakers from blocking the U.K. from exiting the EU without a deal.
An Aramco adviser said leaving without an agreement increased the chances that the U.K. would align its legislation with the U.S.—including the terrorism laws that have been an impediment to a New York listing.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong has been rattled by protesters who have fierce objections to a bill that would have allowed extradition of criminal suspects to China. The demonstrations have evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement and disrupted business and travel.
Aramco’s press office said the “company continues to engage with the shareholder on IPO readiness activities.” It “is ready and timing will depend on market conditions and be at a time of the shareholder’s choosing,” it said in an email comment.
The Saudi officials and Aramco advisers said no final decision has been made about where, or when, any listings would take place and all options remained open. Still, officials said they were leaning toward a listing on the Tokyo exchange.
A spokeswoman for the London Stock Exchange declined to comment. The Hong Kong bourse didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A spokesman at Japan Exchange Group Inc., which operates the Tokyo Stock Exchange, said Thursday, “there has been no change in the status [of a potential Aramco IPO] so far. But there has been no change in our attitude that we would like the company to come to the TSE.”
Japan Exchange Group’s Chief Executive Akira Kiyota has repeatedly expressed his eagerness to have Aramco listed in Tokyo. And in June, Saudi Arabia, which supplies about a third of Japan’s oil, mentioned “cooperation in the IPO of Aramco” in an outline for economic partnership with Japan.
The Tokyo exchange has attracted some of the world’s largest IPOs, including last year’s nearly $24 billion issue by SoftBank Group Corp’s mobile phone unit. It was the world’s second largest IPO after China’s Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. listing in 2014, and showed that the exchange can manage big debuts and serve a large pool of investors.
Aramco’s interest in pursuing a local listing emerged as the company has discussed with bankers the possibility of launching the IPO before the end of this year, and asked about the valuation Aramco might expect with a domestic-only offering, according to people familiar with the matter.
Prince Mohammed is looking to value Aramco at $2 trillion. Bankers and other Saudi officials say they believe a range of between $1.2 trillion and $1.5 trillion is more realistic.
The sale of a smaller amount through the domestic offering could bring Aramco closer to the crown prince’s goal by making it easier to ensure investors’ demand for the available shares exceeds supply, which would drive up the company’s ultimate valuation, some bankers suggested. In turn that valuation would set the floor for a subsequent listing on an international exchange in 2020.
Alternatively, Aramco could try to sell a stake to a so-called cornerstone investor such as a sovereign-wealth fund at the target valuation—ahead of the IPO, to establish a precedent, one banker said.
Cutting interest rates now could set the stage for a collapse in the financial markets.
To widespread applause in the markets and the news media, from conservatives and liberals alike, the Federal Reserve appears poised to cut interest rates for the first time since the global financial crisis a decade ago. Adjusted for inflation, the Fed’s benchmark rate is now just half a percent and the cost of borrowing has rarely been closer to free, but the clamor for more easy money keeps growing.
Everyone wants the recovery to last and more easy money seems like the obvious way to achieve that goal. With trade wars threatening the global economy, Federal Reserve officials say rate cuts are needed to keep the slowdown from spilling into the United States, and to prevent doggedly low inflation from sliding into outright deflation.
Few words are more dreaded among economists than “deflation.” For centuries, deflation was a common and mostly benign phenomenon, with prices falling because of technological innovations that lowered the cost of producing and distributing goods. But the widespread deflation of the 1930s and the more recent experience of Japan have given the word a uniquely bad name.
After Japan’s housing and stock market bubbles burst in the early 1990s, demand fell and prices started to decline, as heavily indebted consumers began to delay purchases of everything from TV sets to cars, waiting for prices to fall further. The economy slowed to a crawl. Hoping to jar consumers into spending again, the central bank pumped money into the economy, but to no avail. Critics said Japan took action too gradually, and so its economy remained stuck in a deflationary trap for years.
Yet, in this expansion, the United States economy has grown at half the pace of the postwar recoveries. Inflation has failed to rise to the Fed’s target of a sustained 2 percent. Meanwhile, every new hint of easy money inspires fresh optimism in the financial markets, which have swollen to three times the size of the real economy.
In this environment, cutting rates could hasten exactly the outcome that the Fed is trying to avoid. By further driving up the prices of stocks, bonds and real estate, and encouraging risky borrowing, more easy money could set the stage for a collapse in the financial markets. And that could be followed by an economic downturn and falling prices — much as in Japan in the 1990s. The more expensive these financial assets become, the more precarious the situation, and the more difficult it will be to defuse without setting off a downturn.
The key lesson from Japan was that central banks can print all the money they want, but can’t dictate where it will go. Easy credit could not force over-indebted Japanese consumers to borrow and spend, and much of it ended up going to waste, financing “bridges to nowhere” and the rise of debt-laden “zombie companies” that still weigh on the economy.
Today, politicians on the right and left have come to embrace easy money, each camp for its own reasons, both ignoring the risks. President Trump has been pushing the Fed for a large rate cut to help him bring back the postwar miracle growth rates of 3 percent to 4 percent.
At the same time, liberals like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are turning to unconventional easy money theories as a way to pay for ambitious social programs. But they might want to take a closer look at who has benefited most after a decade of easy money: the wealthy, monopolies, corporate debtors. Not exactly liberal causes.
By fueling a record bull run in the financial markets, easy money is increasing inequality, since the wealthy own the bulk of stocks and bonds. Research also shows that very low interest rates have helped large corporations increase their dominance across United States industries, squeezing out small companies and start-ups. Once seen as a threat only in Japan, zombie firms — which don’t earn enough profit to cover their interest payments — have been rising in the United States, where they account for one in six publicly traded companies.
All these creatures of easy credit erode the economy’s long-term growth potential by undermining productivity, and raise the risk of a global recession emanating from debt-soaked financial and housing markets. A 2015 study of 17 major economies showed that before World War II, about one in four recessions followed a collapse in stock or home prices (or both). Since the war, that number has jumped to roughly two out of three, including the economic meltdowns in Japan after 1990, Asia after 1998 and the world after 2008.
Recessions tend to be longer and deeper when the preceding boom was fueled by borrowing, because after the boom goes bust, flattened debtors struggle for years to dig out from under their loans. And lately, easy money has been enabling debt binges all over the world, particularly in corporate sectors.
As the Fed prepares to announce a decision this week, growing bipartisan support for a rate cut is fraught with irony. Slashing rates to avoid deflation made sense in the crisis atmosphere of 2008, and cutting again may seem like a logical response to weakening global growth now. But with the price of borrowing already so low, more easy money will raise a more serious threat.
By further lifting stock and bond prices and encouraging people to take on more debt, lowering rates could set the stage for the kind of debt-fueled market collapse that has preceded the economic downturns of recent decades. Our economy is hooked on easy money — and it is a dangerous addiction.
I’m chief executive officer of a social network that competes with Facebook , so you might expect I’d agree with those seeking to break up Facebook in the name of fair competition. In fact, I strongly oppose the idea. I don’t believe Facebook is a monopoly.
Regulatory officials, presidential candidates and even a Facebook co-founder are among those who’ve asserted that Facebook has become so big and powerful that it stifles all competitors, leaving social-media users nowhere else to turn. Yet my company, MeWe, is not only surviving but thriving. The free market is alive and kicking.
One reason Facebook is vulnerable to competition is that its business practices are off-putting to social-media users. According to a 2018 Pew survey, 44% of users 18 to 29 deleted Facebook the prior year. As I’ve often said, Facebook is a data company masquerading as a social network. Facebook’s business is based on harvesting data from its users, both on the site and off, then charging advertisers to target them.
In contrast, MeWe is a full-featured social network engineered with privacy-by-design that’s freemium-based with no ads, targeting or newsfeed manipulation. Marketers and election meddlers cannot target or boost anything to anyone. These are significant competitive differentiations.
Those advocating Facebook’s breakup cite antitrust enforcements throughout American history as precedents. But they don’t square with today’s realities. In 1911, when the Supreme Court ordered the Standard Oil Trust to break up into 34 independent companies, it had rock-solid reason to do so. Standard owned 90% of U.S. oil production and engaged in the unfair practice of jacking up prices in areas with no competition and lowering prices where competition was active. Facebook cannot underprice its competitors out of existence because most social networks are free.
In U.S. v. Paramount Pictures (1948), the high court ruled against movie studios that used their ownership of theaters to ensure that only their own pictures were shown. This prevented smaller studios from distributing their films and moviegoers from seeing them. Today, content creators are free to distribute their content anywhere on the web, and Facebook has no way of preventing users from accessing that content.
In the 1970s, AT&T was the sole telephone provider in most of the U.S., and most phone equipment was produced by an AT&T subsidiary, Western Electric. This screamed monopoly, which is why the government forced AT&T to split into seven “Baby Bells” in 1984. A clear difference between the old AT&T and Facebook is that the former left consumers with no options. If you wanted to phone your aunt, you had to use AT&T. This is not the case with Facebook; there are other social networks to choose from.
Some have argued that Facebook’s ability to outspend smaller social networks makes it impossible for them to compete. I’ve seen firsthand that this is not a competitive barrier. MeWe has achieved breakout growth from word-of-mouth alone.
Others have pointed to Facebook’s aggressive acquisition strategy—92 companies since 2007. Most have been technology companies specializing in areas such as artificial intelligence and facial recognition, along with social-networking and messaging apps such as Instagram and WhatsApp. While this may look like an anticompetitive strategy, there are still successful social networks such as Snapchat, Twitter , YouTube and MeWe. If today Facebook were to acquire Twitter or Snapchat, this would be of greater concern.
The way to keep social media truly competitive is not to break up Facebook but to reinstate net neutrality. That would even the playing field and allow startups to compete on equal footing with giants like Facebook and Google. If internet service providers start charging for special privileges such as internet “fast lanes,” deep-pocketed companies would be able to squeeze out smaller competitors that can’t afford such costs.
While Facebook should be held to account for transgressions such as privacy violations and election interference, breaking up the company wouldn’t solve these problems. It would likely create a handful of mini-Facebooks that engage in the same practices. Let the free market, secured by net neutrality, do its work. As users discover new social networks that fit their values and tastes, they, not regulators, will decide which ones thrive. Millions are already making their voices heard.