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Spotify IPO Watch: Making it Up on Volume or See SPOT Run

April 18, 2018 Comments off
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It’s still early days for the Spotify public offering (more correctly called a “DPO” for “direct public offering” but since no one knows what that means, I used IPO in the headline).  But sure as a $50 handshake, interesting patterns may be developing in the basic trading elements of price and volume, courtesy of Yahoo Finance:

SPOT 4-18-18

Remember that the “direct listing” was supposed to confer various benefits to Spotify.  You know, that old canard about saving money on underwriter fees, the evil “bankers” who everyone hates, right?

But look at this chart and ask yourself if this behavior bears any resemblance to what a “normal” underwritten IPO would behave like.  I would offer that what this chart behaves like is something else–the preferred stock of a takeover target following a tender offer when preferred holders already know what the price is ultimately going to be for for their shares.  In that scenario, there is a price that is not set by traders of the shares that the shares revolve around reflecting a risk that gets lower every day closer to the closing of the transaction.

The point of the analogy being that traders already know the ultimate price they will get for their shares.  So you see low volume and a price fluctuation around a range.

In the case of Spotify, the opening price was set by a manipulation of a special ruling by the Securities and Exchange Commission that allowed Spotify to use its last trade as a private company for its first trade as a public company–as though there were some connection between these things.  There really isn’t much of a connection.  You can’t say there’s no connection, but there are so many distortions in the price and valuation of this particular private company (Tencent, large convertible debt, down round avoidance, no insider lockups, etc.) that there isn’t a whole lot of connection between the private and public valuation.

By setting its IPO price at $165.90 and a relatively small number of shares in its “float“, it was entirely predictable that Spotify would trade at a low volume at that price range (even though it closed down 20 on its first trading day).  Despite the customary restrictions on insider selling not being in place (the “lockups”), there still have to be buyers to match to the sellers.  At a $100+ price point for a company that lives high on the hog while losing the stockholders money hand over fist, it’s clear that Spotify is not directing its shares at a retail customer who will ask one question.

What do I sell to buy SPOT?  The answer–in a world where you can buy a share of Apple for roughly the same price on a down day–probably nothing.  Which I think is a fair explanation of why SPOT volume is so low.  An absence of buyers, especially retail buyers.

One other measurement of sentiment:  Short selling.  With a low number of shares trading and no underwriting syndicate, there are fewer places to go to borrow the shares.  Although put options at a $100 strike price are already available.

As you can see from the chart, after the first week of trade, the volume has settled into a pattern of approximately 1.5 million shares trading daily.  Whether these are real traders, market making activity by the company’s insiders or some combination remains to be seen.  But at this rate, it’s going to take a very long time for insiders to sell their shares.

Of course, if anyone wanted to sell a block of shares, all they’d have to do is price the shares at a lower share price, which might cause trading to pick up at a more realistic price point.

But anyone who did that would probably not be too well received around the kale bar or whatever is is they have at Spotify.  Because it sure seems that all the Spotify insiders, like the takeover’s preferred holders, already know the price they are expected to sell at. Or maybe they just know something we don’t.

Time will tell but it’s worth watching.  For a lot of people.

 

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Spotify IPO Watch: Buy High, Sell Low — Music Tech Solutions

March 28, 2018 Comments off

Is Spotify’s unusual “DPO” approach and bizarre $132 selling price simply a way for insiders to short the stock? See SPOT run! Run SPOT run!

Here’s an interesting anecdote about that imminent Spotify stock offering.  Remember, Spotify is rumored to price at $132 per share based on private market trades (on a split adjusted basis, I guess).

If the Spotify “DPO” actually does trade at $132, it will probably be the highest valued IPO stock ever.  Dropbox, for example, priced at $21 and closed at $28.48 on its first day of trading.  Facebook priced at $38, Google at $85, Alibaba $68, Amazon was $18.  So Spotify will have to be pretty special to actually trade at $132 on the public market.

It’s good to remember that most of these comparisons had what’s called a “full commitment underwriting” where the company issues new shares that are purchased by an underwriting syndicate and then resold to the public.  Spotify will issue no new shares.  So–one would surmise that the only ones selling will be those who already hold Spotify shares that have been allowed to be sold on the public exchange.  That appears to mean the shares that will be trading will be the insiders (or mostly the insiders), with no restrictions on which of those insiders can sell on the first day of trading.  (Most IPOs have a restriction (called “lockup agreements”) on when employees can sell their shares to avoid a rush for the exits.)

I happened to be chatting with two sophisticated investors in recent days, one from a hedge fund and the other an entrepreneur who has taken a couple companies public.  Both of them had the same reaction after we talked through Spotify’s competitive position and some of the disclosures in Spotify’s SEC Form “F-1”.

Let’s start with Spotify’s description of who it counts as a subscriber:’

We define Premium Subscribers as Users that have completed registration with Spotify and have activated a payment method for Premium Service. Our Premium Subscribers include all registered accounts in our Family Plan. Our Family Plan consists of one primary subscriber and up to five additional sub-accounts, allowing up to six Premium Subscribers per Family Plan subscription. Premium Subscribers includes subscribers who are within a grace period of up to 30 days after failing to pay their subscription fee.

If you think that a paid subscriber means a subscriber who paid, you’re probably not wild about this definition, and both my friends thought it was not only a meaningless number but also was deceptive.  My guess is that it conservatively overstates “Premium Subscribers” by about 20% given the number of freebies that Spotify hands out.  We were all actually surprised that the Securities and Exchange Commission allowed Spotify to get away with this kind of disclosure as the definition is buried in a footnote.  Neither friend had noticed it, and these were people who are too smart to miss these things normally.

Then there was a discussion about that New York real estate–Pandora is certainly learning its lesson about sky high overhead and is migrating gradually to Atlanta.  I’ve always been mystified why money losing companies like Spotify get away with locating in some of the highest priced real estate in the world–San Francisco and Manhattan.  And also get away with complaining about royalties instead of rents.  Rather than the labels rewarding them based on subscribers, why not reward them based on subscribers if and only if they also lower their overhead (called SG&A) by a certain percentage.

Both conversations ended with a discussion of the 10 second MBA–buy low, sell high.  This is what you do with a long position in a stock.  In Spotify’s case, we were discussing another kind of position, a short position.  Short selling reverses the equation–buy high, sell low.

This is because the short seller is betting that the stock will trade lower, and usually considerably lower, than the price at the beginning of the short seller’s round trip.  In brief, what happens with short selling is that you borrow the shares from someone who holds them.  You get to borrow them for a fixed period of time.  You then sell those borrowed shares at the then-current market price.

short_sell_example

Because your bet with “directional” short selling is that the shares will decline in value over time after that initial sale of the borrowed shares, you then essentially use the proceeds from the sale of the borrowed stock to purchase the shares before your short period expires.  You then return the borrowed shares after you buy them back.

Sometimes you can make a fortune selling short (which doesn’t require shorting stocks, see George Soros shorting the UK pound stirling and The Big Short).  Of course, it can go the other way, too, and result in a short squeeze if the price of the shorted stock increases and short sellers have to “cover” at a higher price than they sold the borrowed shares so they can return the borrowed shares and not default.

“Short interest” is a published number and can be used as a measurement of market sentiment about a particular stock.  It’s the aggregated number of shares of a stock that have been sold short but haven’t been closed out or “covered.”  (Similar to the “put to call” ratio in options trading.)  So it was a bit remarkable to me that both these friends said they’d probably short Spotify as soon as they could.

That’s an interesting question–when could the Spotify stock be shorted.  In order to short, there must be some inventory of shares available to borrow and trade such as from a brokerage house (who can lend the shares from clients’ margin accounts, for example).  Typically, underwriters of an IPO are not allowed to short their IPO stock for 30 days or so.  However, there is no such restriction on retail investors–and Spotify has no underwriters.

Therefore, there may be no restriction on when the Spotify insiders can short Spotify stock.

And if my anecdotes are any guide, it certainly does look like there will be a market for short sellers.  One could even say that insiders seeking to short Spotify shares are simply acting prudently to protect their downside, not unlike a “collar” or other hedging transaction.  This will be particularly true if there is a real run on the exits and early investors or other holders (like the senior management team) start selling right away given they have none of the usual lockup agreements or restrictions on trading as far as I know.

In the words of one of the friends, the shorting will begin at 9:31 on the first day of trading.  As someone who knows the importance of a few seconds in the world of automated trading, I believe him.

 

 

via Spotify IPO Watch: Buy High, Sell Low — Music Tech Solutions

@musicbizworld: Universal Commits to Sharing Stock Sale Proceeds with Artists

March 11, 2018 Comments off

According to Music Business Worldwide, Universal has committed to sharing profits from the sale of Spotify stock.  The exact quote is:

“CONSISTENT WITH UMG’S APPROACH TO ARTIST COMPENSATION, ARTISTS WOULD SHARE IN THE PROCEEDS OF A [SPOTIFY] EQUITY SALE.”

Sources close to Vivendi-owned UMG suggest it may have been corporately restricted from making a hypothetical public statement on the matter until Spotify officially confirmed its intention to float on the New York Stock Exchange.

This is great news and also is the right thing to do.  The trick is, of course, that someone has to buy Universal’s position in Spotify in the public market.

Selling large blocks of shares in the public markets is always a tricky business, but Spotify may have made it exponentially more difficult given the “direct public offering” structure of its IPO (more properly called a “DPO”).  I suspect that there will be a rush for the exits as holders of Spotify stock try to liquidate, and Universal could find itself selling alongside a fully-vested marketing consultant who left the company three years ago, artists who got shares, and of course all the other majors and Merlin.

If you believe as I do that the world of retail investing is not waiting for a Spotify IPO,  this kind of robust selling could cause the price to tank in the absence of buyers or result in the kind of volume patterns you see with some shares of preferred stock (which have the “z” designation after the share numbers on the day in the stock section).

The Vivendi and Universal treasury folk are very smart people, so I’m sure they will manage the sale of their stock with an eye to avoiding tanking the stock and maximizing profit, so their interests are aligned with their artists (and presumably songwriters, too).

The next problem that we will all have to deal with is the meme that Spotify is already promoting–the reason Spotify loses money is that royalties are too damn high.  I guess that means the royalties they’re not paying?  Followed closely behind (A) the reason they can’t pay songwriters is because songwriters hide from them (true story, read the F-1 at p. 20); (B) Spotify wants to eliminate the “middleman” (i.e., record companies) and good luck with that; and (C) if the music industry had just built a global rights database then, then everything would be fine so Spotify’s failure to pay royalties is really our fault.

And especially those pesky songwriters who hide from them.

Even if it may take a while to liquidate Universal’s position in Spotify, it is comforting that they’re committed to doing the right thing.

@andreworlowski: Spotify wants to go public but can’t find Ed Sheeran (to pay him) — Artist Rights Watch

March 2, 2018 Comments off

How Shareholder Lawsuits Against Spotify May Have Just Gotten Easier

February 25, 2018 2 comments
maginot-line

The Maginot Line

The Digital Media Association is as obsessed with crushing the ability of independent songwriters and small publishers to sue companies like Spotify for copyright infringement as the industry negotiators are with presenting a new safe harbor for infringers like it was a fantastic give in the Music Modernization Act.  But at least where Spotify is concerned, as a public company they may be begging for the very statutory damages they are so anxious to eliminate.

Spotify lawyers like Christopher Sprigman and his compadre Lawrence Lessig have been trying to get rid of statutory damages and bring back 1909-style copyright registration for years.  (See also Pamela Samuelson and the list goes on.)

But now that the industry has acquiesced in both of those long cherished goals of the anti-copyright crowd, songwriters will have to look elsewhere to regain the kind of punch that they got with the statutory damages stick.  Why?  Because  a benevolent and patriarchal government is taking that stick away from the little guy and giving it to the largest corporations in commercial history.  (And recording artists and record companies–you’re next and you’ll know who to thank.  See Transparency in Music Licensing and Ownership Act that is quietly adding co-sponsors.)

But you say, what could be a bigger stick than statutory damages?  It might be shareholder derivative suits.  And Sprigman’s benefactor Google is a great example of what that means.

MTP readers will recall that we have written before about Google’s “dual class shares” that created 10 for 1 supervoting stock that is owned only by insiders like Eric “Uncle Sugar” Schmidt, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.  If you’ve ever watched the video of a Google shareholder meeting, you’ll have seen David Drummond (who has his own problems) reading out the news of how any shareholder motion that was not supported by the insiders was defeated–and massively defeated due to the supervoting stock.  The only thing that’s remarkable is that the shareholders keep trying.  Because while all shareholders are equal, at Google, some shareholders are more equal than others.  Ten times more equal if they give you voting stock at all.  Google shareholders give the right to be forgotten a whole new meaning.

That’s right–Google has what I call the “you break it, you bought it” class of stock that gives the insiders total control over all aspects of their corporation.  If you’re not an insider, your role is to shut up and enjoy the ride.  Don’t get me wrong–lots of people do.

But some don’t.  Most recently, a Google shareholder tried to question the company’s top executives about their pre-#metoo opposition to the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.

If you watch the video, you’ll get the idea.  Google is comfortable with their opposition to stopping sex trafficking in favor of profitable safe harbors, so sit down, shut up and count your money.  That should demonstrate two things:  First, the Alphas are not interested in anything anyone else has to say although they will go through the motions to tolerate the poor Epsilons.  Second, these policy positions and more importantly corporate actions are solely the responsibility of the insiders in the More Equal Than You system of corporate governance.

And guess what?  Bloomberg reports that Silicon Valley mogul wanna be Daniel Ek mimicked the Google model with the supposedly egalitarian Spotify.

Chief Executive Officer Daniel Ek and Vice Chairman Martin Lorentzon own a class of stock that assures their hold on the company after the shares begin trading, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the terms aren’t public. Another class will be tradeable by investors.

That means public investors will be able to own part of the world’s largest paid music service in the next couple of months, but won’t have much say about its future. Years after going public, some of the biggest technology companies, including Google parent Alphabet Inc. and Facebook Inc., remain under the control of founders who hold shares with super-voting rights.

Company founders employ so-called dual-class structures to take advantage of the perks of being publicly traded without surrendering control. Such owners can make acquisitions that dilute their economic interest without loosing their grip.

Ek, who co-founded Spotify about a decade ago in Stockholm, has looked to such companies for direction. He invited Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to his wedding and has publicly praised the leadership of Snap Inc., which gave its investors no voting rights in its initial public offering last March.

If the Google shareholder meetings are any guide, it’s not that investors won’t have much say, they won’t have any say at all.  Unless they are sued by their stockholders in what is called a shareholder derivative suit.  A shareholder suit is when a shareholder sues the corporation’s officers or board of directors for a cause of action against the corporation that isn’t being brought because it would require the board of directors to sue itself.  These are often based on breach of fiduciary duty.

Case in point:  Google’s sale of advertising promoting the sale and distribution of illegal drugs.  Google signed a nonprosecution agreement with the Department of Justice, second cousin to a plea bargain, after a four year grand jury investigation, producing four million documents to the investigators and paying a $500,000,000 fine.  Walking around money for Google, but nobody was fired and according to the U.S. Attorney bringing the case, the paper trail implicated Google’s senior management including Larry Page (which disclosure resulted in an apology to Google from the DOJ and the “muzzling” of the US Attorney,)

Shareholders were pissed and a pension fund brought a derivative case (read the complaint) against the Google board including Page, Brin, Schmidt, John Doerr and Sheryl Sandberg.  (Yes, that Sheryl Sandberg.)  This case resulted in a settlement that required Google to spend over $250,000,000.

Shareholder Suite

So this is the kind of thing that stockholders bring themselves when they know that the government never will and there’s a case to be made.  Shareholder suits are kind of like the “private attorney general” laws that used to be in the Copyright Act where the government avoided the burden of actually enforcing its laws itself and instead relied on the market to do so.  How did they do this?  By giving private actors a big stick like the statutory damages and attorneys’ fees (recent precedent notwithstanding) they are now taking away from songwriters in the Music Modernization Act.

But never fear–songwriters who are also Spotify stockholders will still have the stick of shareholder derivative suits to go after malfeasance in the boardroom.  Shareholder derivative suits are in a very broad sense kind of like class actions, something Spotify is very familiar with.  The class is stockholders and the defendants are often limited to the officers and directors of the company for doing things like, oh, say, committing massive acts of willful copyright infringement that probably could be criminally prosecuted if there were any prosecutors with the chutzpah to actually enforce the copyright law.

And once Spotify sells shares to the public, the insiders may control the infringement but they can’t control who buys their stock.

Since Mr. Ek seems to want to be just like Google, maybe he’ll be just like Google in another way, too.  And remember–this is just the beginning of the disclosure of the inner workings of Spotify that will start to dribble out as its SEC disclosures become due and payable.  And these supervoting stock classes are a very good way to demonstrate that you broke it, you bought it.

You want all the control?  Well, you got it.  And having all the control means having all the responsibility, too.  Just ask Uncle Sugar.

 

So Much for Conversion: Apple Set to Pass Spotify in Subscribers

February 4, 2018 Comments off

Remember this one?

070715-daniel_ek-wired

Spotify was saving us all from piracy by giving the music for free in its ad supported tier. And if you had any doubts about that, just ask any Spotify employee, particularly circa 2011 or so.  They’d tell you in no uncertain terms that not only did you just not get it, you were failing on a cosmological level not to understand that that person you saw in the distance walking on water was not Jesus.  It was you know who.

Some of us believe that most people have an ambivalent relationship with advertising.  Some tolerate it, and of course you do hear people saying in their best automoton impression how advertising is “useful” which if it’s said just right can send a chill up the spine at the sheer Stepfordness of it all.  Many people, however, loathe advertising, which is why you constantly hear “leave it there” or “don’t move” from some on-air folk before a commercial break.  Some of those advertising loathers are themselves artists, which is why they have restrictions in their contracts about how their music can be used in advertising.

All of which went out the window with Spotify, because Spotify was going to save us all from piracy.  (We’ll leave out the Daniel Ek/U-torrent part today.)

And when Apple launched Apple Music as a subscription only service, Spotify had a meltdown–staring with Daniel Ek himself who Tweeted “Oh ok” which I guess he thought was something of a put down.

But–what about the conversion bit?  Apple is into conversion, too, but a different kind.  As of January 2018, the Apple installed base was over 1.3 billion.  Set aside what’s probably relatively minor overlap (mulitple phones on same billing account), one way or another that’s an existing customer base of over 1 billion people that already have iTunes installed, already have a billing relationship with Apple and are already predisposed to buy an Apple Music subscription.  What you might call economy of scale.

Spotify on the other hand wants you to believe that they can some how take people who have many, many commercial alternatives to theft–all of which they’ve ignored–and get them to use an advertising supported model.  A larger potential market, but people who don’t know you, don’t pay money for music online (yes, I know there’s an argument that they buy other things, which I don’t buy), and for many of them, people who don’t like us much.  Dedicated followers of Lessig in many cases.

So it should be no surprise that Anne Steele in the Wall Street Journal is reporting that if you include users who have subscribed to free or discounted subscriptions, Apple is actually ahead of Spotify in the US:

Apple Music has already passed Spotify. Including people who are still in free or deeply discounted trial periods leading up to paid subscription, Apple Music has a slight edge on Spotify in the U.S., according to one of the people familiar with the figures.

Apple Music has three to four times the number of such trial users as Spotify, according to this person, in part because it doesn’t offer a free tier. Also, all Apple Music subscribers are entered automatically into a free initial three-month period. Excluding those trial users, Spotify is ahead, but by a small amount—and that gap is closing.

And that’s kind of the point–Apple already has the billing relationship with their users so any resources they spend to convert users to subscribers is money well spent with a much higher likelihood of return.

But Anne Steele is one of the only journalists I’ve ever read who even mentions the possiblity that Spotify’s subscriber numbers are…let’s say exaggerated.   As she notes:

One question lingering in the industry is what metrics Spotify will have to disclose once it becomes a publicly traded company. The service has periodically released global subscriber totals and just last month touted a new high of 70 million.

Pop quiz–and be honest now–how many times have you thought that Spotify has 70 million paying subscribers?  Meaning users who are not on their 14th 90 day free trial?  If you look carefully you will see that Spotify itself doesn’t ever say 70 million paid subscribers.  The hoorah Spotify boosters in the press add “paid”.  But when the cold hand of the Sarbanes-Oxley truth in public company reporting law comes into Spotify’s post-IPO life like it does Apple’s, that 70 million number may get clarified–a lot.  And my bet is it will move downward or that there will start to be a greater distinction drawn by Spotify between subscribers and paying subscribers.

And that restatement of subcribers is not the kind of conversion that Spotify wants.

 

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