The two men, one American and one Japanese, sat side by side today, in front of the bright lights and cameras -- each a controversial man on a mission, determined to radically transform his business world.
Masayoshi Son, founder of Softbank Corp., and Frank Zarb, chairman of the National Association of Securities Dealers, which administers the Nasdaq Stock Market, today unveiled their plans to establish Nasdaq Japan. As envisioned by the two partners, it would be a new stock market where all of Nasdaq's more than 5,000 stocks would be traded, along with stocks of high-growth Japanese companies and index funds.
Investors could get information in Japanese and trade in yen, but the rules would generally follow those spelled out by Nasdaq and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which require greater disclosure of financial information than Japanese regulations do.
Son became one of Japan's richest men after Internet companies he invested in went public on Nasdaq. He has long argued that Japan needs a Nasdaq to help Japanese technology ventures raise funds. Still, the idea that Son and Zarb would present Japanese officials with a plan to supplant the Finance Ministry's carefully crafted rules was "audacious," said one Finance Ministry official. "Can you imagine if the reverse happened in the U.S." and Japanese executives said they were establishing a stock exchange in America using Japanese rules?
Meanwhile, Zarb's efforts to push Nasdaq into Asian markets, and to create Nasdaq-like markets around the world linked by the Internet, have been raising eyebrows in the United States.
"We're pushing the edges of the envelope. But let me tell you that the envelope gets pushed every single day in a fierce manner, and unless you're in that mode of pushing the edge, then you're going to get passed by. This is an attempt to lead and not be led," Zarb said. "We're in an environment where changes are no longer evolutionary, they are revolutionary."
He went on to say later, "Technology and global interconnection will be critical, and if you can't provide your investors with a connection to markets outside your home market, somebody else is going to come around and do it."
This month, Softbank, which was created in 1981 as a software distributor and became an early, aggressive investor in U.S. Internet companies, and NASD will establish a new company called Nasdaq Japan Planning Co., with a total of $5 million in capital. Each firm will own half of the company, which will draw up the plans for the new stock exchange, consulting with regulators and brokers.
The proposed stock exchange is the latest in an increasingly fast succession of changes being forced onto Japan as technology, the recession and a host of other factors have knocked down its historic ability to hold back change. Indeed, it is a sign of the times that, despite the challenge to Japanese bureaucrats, some in the industry give Nasdaq a high chance of winning the necessary government approval.
"They won't be able kill the plan. If they do, it will look like they are not sincere about financial deregulation," said an executive of a major Japanese brokerage firm.
"It's the people like Son that are creating jobs," said one Japanese employee of a foreign brokerage company. "The government can't afford to just dismiss a plan that might create lots of jobs."
Atsuto Sawakami, the president of a small asset-management company, agreed, based on his own run-in with regulators. In January, with his asset-management business expanding, he applied for permission to run a mutual fund. He was brushed off. Incensed, he responded with an angry letter, arguing that such actions hurt the economy. Much to his surprise, financial regulators agreed with him. They approved his request and also asked him to suggest reforms.
Son and Zarb, who met this year and have been working on the plan intensely for about six months, are obviously hoping to capitalize on this new sentiment. Their presentation was full of charts comparing surging initial public offerings on Nasdaq with the paltry number in Japan, the stock exchanges' performances and trading volumes.
Strategists said the announcement may have been inadvertently well timed. Recent news that Japan's economy had grown by 1.9 percent in the first three months of this year has shifted the debate in recent days. There is now mild optimism that the economy may be able to continue to grow next year, even without a massive government stimulus program, if Japan can find ways to more efficiently allocate capital to companies that can create jobs. Analysts were busy this week raising their corporate profit estimates and also their predictions for the Nikkei index.
Sawakami's advice to Son and Zarb: "All they have to do is say this will help create more capital for Japanese companies. . . . People want this."
Special correspondent Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Frank Zarb and Masayoshi Son say Japan's Nasdaq would use American rules.