Climate Progress reports: The divestment movement is really gaining steam — non-coal, non-fossil-fuel powered steam.
Investors representing $2.6 trillion in assets have pledged to cut fossil fuels from their portfolios, a fifty-fold increase from last year. At least 436 institutions have pledged to stop investing in fossil fuels — for moral or financial reasons. Large pension funds and private companies make up 95 percent of the assets, according to analysis released Tuesday by Arabella Advisors.
“If these numbers tell us anything, it’s that the divestment movement is catching fire,” said May Boeve, executive director of campaigners 350.org.
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who established a fund for conservation projects in 1998, also announced that he would join the movement by divesting his assets and those of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. [Continue reading…]
San Francisco Chronicle reports: California’s huge public pension funds, CalPERS and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System, have lost more than $5 billion on their fossil fuel investments at a time when some legislators are urging the funds to dump their coal company stocks.
An analysis from the environmental group 350.org found that the two pension funds lost $5.2 billion from June 2014 through June of this year on companies that produce coal, oil and natural gas. And many of those stocks have plunged even further since then, driven down by sinking oil and coal prices.
“It’s important to see that fossil fuels in general, and coal in particular, are risky bets for the pension system,” said Brett Fleishman, senior analyst with 350.org, which promotes fossil fuel divestment as a way to fight climate change. “When folks are saying divestment is risky, we can say, ‘Well, not divesting is risky.’” [Continue reading…]
The Wall Street Journal reports: Spies are infiltrating Wall Street.
A wave of companies with ties to the intelligence community is winning over the world of finance, with banks and hedge funds putting the firms’ terrorist-tracking tools to work rooting out employee misconduct before it leads to fines or worse.
“Both Wall Street and the intelligence world want the same thing: to find unknown unknowns in the data,” said Roger Hockenberry, the former chief technology officer of the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine services and now a partner at the consulting firm Cognitio Corp. in Washington.
“Financial firms aren’t looking for terrorists, but good customers and attempts at fraud,” he said.
The CIA gave many of these companies their big break: After the terror attacks of September 2001, a private-equity arm of the CIA known as In-Q-Tel began seeding companies that could help it sift through vast repositories of data to quickly identify threats. Those skills have become more valuable on Wall Street as firms try to keep up with rogue traders in increasingly complex and rapidly moving markets.
Of 101 companies publicly seeded by In-Q-Tel, 33 have taken on Wall Street clients in recent years, according to a review by The Wall Street Journal. [Continue reading…]
The Wall Street Journal reports: More top Wall Streeters are California dreaming.
A technology-fueled gold rush is drawing seasoned financial executives with the promise of sunshine, fresh managerial challenges and compensation that can top even the seven-figure paychecks common in the investment world.
Blackstone Group LP said Friday that its chief financial officer, Laurence Tosi, is leaving the private-equity firm to become finance chief at Airbnb Inc., the booming home-rental service. He is just the latest Wall Street executive to move west to take advantage of massive investor interest in fast-growing companies seeking to upend entire swaths of the economy.
Mr. Tosi, 47 years old, has made a good living by any standard since he joined Blackstone following its 2007 initial public offering. He earned about $15 million last year, according to filings, and $33.8 million over the past three years, not including dividends and some other perks, such as proceeds from investments made in the firm’s funds. [Continue reading…]
Chris Arnade writes: One of the first lessons I was taught on Wall Street was, “Know who the fool is.” That was the gist of it. The more detailed description, yelled at me repeatedly was, “Know who the fucking idiot with the money is and cram as much toxic shit down their throat as they can take. But be nice to them first.”
When I joined in Salomon Brothers in ‘93, Japanese customers (mostly smaller banks and large industrial companies) were considered the fool. My first five years were spent constructing complex financial products, ones with huge profit margins for us — “toxic waste” in Wall Street lingo — to sell to them. By the turn of the century many of those customers had collapsed, partly from the toxic waste we sold them, partly from all the other crazy things they were buying.
The launch of the common European currency, the euro, ushered in a period of European financial confidence, and we on Wall Street started to take advantage of another willing fool: European banks. More precisely northern European banks. [Continue reading…]
George Monbiot writes: Greece may be financially bankrupt, but the troika is politically bankrupt. Those who persecute this nation wield illegitimate, undemocratic powers, powers of the kind now afflicting us all. Consider the International Monetary Fund. The distribution of power here was perfectly stitched up: IMF decisions require an 85% majority, and the US holds 17% of the votes.
The IMF is controlled by the rich, and governs the poor on their behalf. It’s now doing to Greece what it has done to one poor nation after another, from Argentina to Zambia. Its structural adjustment programmes have forced scores of elected governments to dismantle public spending, destroying health, education and all the means by which the wretched of the earth might improve their lives.
The same programme is imposed regardless of circumstance: every country the IMF colonises must place the control of inflation ahead of other economic objectives; immediately remove barriers to trade and the flow of capital; liberalise its banking system; reduce government spending on everything bar debt repayments; and privatise assets that can be sold to foreign investors.
Using the threat of its self-fulfilling prophecy (it warns the financial markets that countries that don’t submit to its demands are doomed), it has forced governments to abandon progressive policies. Almost single-handedly, it engineered the 1997 Asian financial crisis: by forcing governments to remove capital controls, it opened currencies to attack by financial speculators. Only countries such as Malaysia and China, which refused to cave in, escaped. [Continue reading…]
Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece, writes: In the past two years, the debate in Europe has focused exclusively on issues that sound technical and minor: will there be “conditionality” attached to the purchases of Italian and Spanish bonds by the European Central Bank? Will the ECB supervise all of Europe’s banks, or just the “systemic” ones?
These are questions that ought to be of no genuine interest to anyone other than those with a morbid interest in the interface between public finance and monetary policy. And yet these questions (and the manner in which they will be answered) will probably prove as important for the future of Europe as the treaties of Westphalia, Versailles or even Rome. For these are the issues that will determine whether Europe holds together or succumbs to the vicious centrifugal forces that were unleashed by the crash of 2008.
Even so, they are not issues that are worth expounding upon here. All they do is to reflect a tragic, underlying reality that can be described in simple lay terms without the use of any jargon whatsoever: Europe is disintegrating because its architecture was simply not sound enough to sustain the shockwaves caused by the death throes of what I call the Global Minotaur: the system of neoliberal capitalism centred on Wall Street, extracting tribute from the world after 1971.
It is quite obvious that the insolvency of Madrid and Rome had nothing to do with fiscal profligacy (recall that Spain had a lower debt than Germany in 2008 and Italy has consistently smaller budget deficits) and everything to do with the way in which the eurozone’s macroeconomy relied significantly for the demand of its net exports on the Global Minotaur. Once the latter keeled over in 2008, and Wall Street’s private cash disappeared, two effects brought Europe to its knees. [Continue reading…]
Costas Douzinas writes: A man visits the Australian consulate in Athens and asks for a work visa. ‘Why do you want to leave Greece?’ asks the official. ‘I am worried that Greece will leave the euro’ answers the man. ‘Don’t worry’ responds the consul ‘I was talking to my German colleague yesterday who assured me that Greece will stay in the euro.’ ‘This is the second reason why I want to emigrate.’
The story expresses the impossible dilemma facing the Greeks. On one side, a continuation of the catastrophic austerity that has destroyed the country. On the other Grexit, a prospect that will further hit, for an unpredictably long period, the living standards of a people who have seen their income halved. Premier Alexis Tsipras’ announcement, early on Sunday, that the people will be asked to vote on the final proposals of the Europeans and the IMF is an attempt to divert this typical aporia (lack of passage) towards a more manageable question: Do the people back the government’s rejection of the worst effects of austerity while accepting its commitment to keep the country in the Eurozone? The stakes are high: besides the Greek destiny, the future of the European Union and of democracy is on the line.
The immediate context of the referendum is the behaviour of the European partners in the last few months. The Syriza government was elected with a clear mandate to put an end to austerity policies. These policies were carried out on two fronts, fiscal austerity and internal devaluation. Fiscal austerity was pursued through the reduction of public spending, the privatisation of key state assets and the increase of tax revenues. Large numbers of civil servants were dismissed, the social services were slashed with the health service in particular unable to meet basic needs. The humanitarian crisis that followed is well documented and there is no point in detailing it again. The creditors’ logic aimed to generate primary budget surpluses, which would not be used to restart the stalled economy but to repay the escalating debt. The previous governments had accepted the obligation to create annual surpluses of up to 5% of GDP in the next seven years, something that no government since Ceaușescu’s Romania has either attempted or achieved.
The internal devaluation was carried out through the repeated reduction of private sector wages and the abolition of the bulk of labour law protections, such a collective bargaining. At the same time, the repeated increase of taxes, including the regressive tax on real estate, meant that the bleeding of the economy reached unprecedented levels. The pauperisation of the working people, the IMF argument goes, would improve competitiveness and help economic growth. But the result was abject economic failure. The economy shrank by 26%, unemployment jumped to 27%, youth unemployment went up to 60% and more than 3 million people on or below the poverty line. The IMF admitted a couple of years ago that it had under-calculated the adverse effect of austerity on the economy – the so-called fiscal multiplier – by a factor of three.
It is against this background that the Greeks elected in January 2015 the Syriza government committed to reverse these policies. A period of negotiations followed. But these were not proper negotiations. The huge gap between the two parties in power resources and ideology made the talks brutally asymmetrical. I have called these ‘negotiations’ a European coup, an attempt at ‘regime change’ using banks and not tanks. The economic stakes for the lenders are relatively small – the Greek economy is only 2% of European GDP – and does not justify the risk of a breakdown in relations. The precautionary principle of risk theory, inscribed in the European DNA, demands that the unpredictable effects of Grexit on the European and world economy should be avoided. If the collapse of Lehman Brothers created such a huge crisis, even the consideration of Grexit is more dangerous. [Continue reading…]
In his book Governing by Debt, Maurizio Lazzarato argues that the creditor-debtor centred politics of contemporary capitalism is substantially different from the capital-labour centred politics of post-war capitalism. In fact, to understand what is at stake in contemporary Europe we need to approach debt in its totality – government, corporate, financial and household debt. We have to recognise that the debt relationship is not merely an economic relationship of money owed and collected, but a deeply political relationship of power exercised by one person or institution over another.
Consider the following graph. It shows the total debt by sector in selected EU countries at the end of 2014.
Data from McKinseyGlobal Institute (2015)
A continent sinking under debt
When debt is seen in its totality a different picture emerges from the one usually portrayed by the media. The total debts of the Netherlands and Ireland are nearly seven times their GDP, Denmark’s is 5.5 times and the UK’s more than four times. How sustainable in the long run are the levels of non-government debt in these countries? Is the exceptionally low exposure of the Greek financial sector to debt an indicator that its liabilities have been disguised as Greek government debt? And how sustainable is household debt?
Years of austerity have resulted in European families sinking under debt while experiencing increasing job insecurity, reductions in pensions and the gradual privatisation of welfare services and education.
These different types of debt are not independent from one other. They are mutually constitutive. Behind them are numerous creditor-debtor relations between actors with often diametrically opposed interests and unequal power: states, corporations, banks, financial institutions, small businesses, voters.
This “system” of European debt interacts with a global financial architecture, dominated by the demands of the financial sector. Far from being prudent, this sector is itself exposed to colossal amounts of debt-related risk, endangering all other sectors.
James Kwak writes: One of the central dramas of the early seasons of The Wire is the cat-and-mouse game between Avon Barksdale’s drug operation and the detectives of the Major Crimes Unit. The drug dealers started off using pagers and pay phones. When the police tapped the pagers and the phones, Barksdale’s people switched to “burner” cell phones that they threw away before the police could tap them. By Season 4, Proposition Joe advised Marlo Stanfield not to use phones at all.
Well, apparently, Wall Street currency traders don’t watch The Wire. I don’t think anyone was surprised to learn that major banks including JPMorgan, Citigroup, Barclays, RBS, and UBS conspired to manipulate currency prices — something that regulators have been investigating for over a year and a half. One common strategy was cooperating to time large transactions in order to manipulate daily benchmark rates at which other client transactions are executed.
What is surprising is that these traders — supposedly the smartest people around — carried out their criminal conspiracy in online chat rooms whose contents could be discovered by investigators. (In this day and age, the last thing any bank’s general counsel wants to be accused of is destroying evidence, so you should assume that everything you do over a bank’s networks will be tracked.) Even using their personal cell phones would have been much safer. (Apparently they do watch The Sopranos, however: one of the chat rooms was nicknamed “The Mafia, which is probably not a good idea when you are actually engaged in a criminal conspiracy.)
The game is still to make money any way you can. “If you aint cheating, you aint trying” is the new money quote. The clients are just collateral damage — whether or not JPMorgan says, “Throughout our long and distinguished history, we have been steadfastly committed to putting our clients’ interests first.” The offenses described in the settlement documents extended at least into 2013 — more than four years after the financial crisis. [Continue reading…]
She eats at Chipotle. (Order: chicken burrito bowl.) She travels by van. (Model: A Chevy Express Explorer Limited SE nicknamed the “Scooby” van.) She barely figures in her own presidential campaign announcement video. (Entrance timing: A minute and a half into the two-minute clip.) Her campaign staff is so cheap they don’t have business cards, they commute by Bolt Bus, and they aren’t even equipped with real phones.
This is the “new” Hillary Clinton in the early days of her 2016 presidential bid. Absent — for now — are the swagger, the grand pronouncements, the packed gymnasiums and auditoriums, and the claques of well-paid consultants falling over each other to advise and guide her that we saw in Clinton’s last presidential bid. This time around, Clinton is casting herself in a new role: as the humble and understated people’s candidate. She cares about “everyday Iowans” and “everyday Granite Staters.” She really does! Her carefully staged events with those “everyday” Americans at small-town coffee shops and local businesses give her the chance to “share ideas to tackle today’s problems and demonstrate her commitment to earning their votes.”
This effort to recast Clinton as a folksy, down-to-earth, woman of we-the-people is, however, about to collide with the reality of American politics in the money-crazed, post-Citizens United era. Winning the White House in 2016 will cost somewhere between $1 billion and $3 billion — money raised by the candidate’s own campaign and outside groups like super PACs and dark-money nonprofits. And this in an election where it’s already estimated that the overall money may hit $10 billion. Jeb Bush, arguably the most formidable candidate in the GOP field, is on his way to raising $100 million in just the first few months of 2015, a year and a half before the actual election. The prospect of being drastically outgunned by Bush has prodded Clinton to speed up her fundraising schedule and hit the donor circles in New York City and Washington in settings that couldn’t be more removed from the local Chipotle. “I need to get out there earlier,” Politico quoted her telling one of her aides.
In the coming months, whatever hours Clinton spends introducing herself to voters in small-town America, she will spend hundreds more raising money in four-star hotels and multimillion-dollar homes in Hollywood and San Francisco, New York and Boston, Washington and Miami. She will court wealthy liberals across the land and urge them to collectively give tens of millions of dollars to her campaign. The question underlying this inevitable mad dash for cash isn’t “Can Hillary Clinton raise the funds?” The Clintons are practiced buckrakers.
The question is: “Can Clinton claim to stand for ‘everyday Americans,’ while hauling in huge sums of cash from the very wealthiest of us?”
This much cannot be disputed: Clinton’s connections to the financiers and bankers of this country — and this country’s campaigns — run deep, as Nomi Prins, former Wall Street exec and author of All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances that Drive American Power (just out in paperback), writes in today’s dispatch. As she documents in her book, the Clintons have longstanding ties to the mightiest banks on Wall Street. Those alliances will prove vital as Hillary tries to keep up in the “money primary” of the 2016 campaign. But as she tries to appeal to working and middle class people, you can expect her opponents to use Clinton’s Wall Street connections against her. And it’s reasonable to ask: Who counts more to such a candidate, the person you met over that chicken burrito bowl or the Citigroup partner you met over crudités and caviar? Andy Kroll
The Clintons and their banker friends
The Wall Street connection (1992 to 2016)
By Nomi Prins
[This piece has been adapted and updated by Nomi Prins from chapters 18 and 19 of her book All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances that Drive American Power, just out in paperback (Nation Books).]
The past, especially the political past, doesn’t just provide clues to the present. In the realm of the presidency and Wall Street, it provides an ongoing pathway for political-financial relationships and policies that remain a threat to the American economy going forward.
When Hillary Clinton video-announced her bid for the Oval Office, she claimed she wanted to be a “champion” for the American people. Since then, she has attempted to recast herself as a populist and distance herself from some of the policies of her husband. But Bill Clinton did not become president without sharing the friendships, associations, and ideologies of the elite banking sect, nor will Hillary Clinton. Such relationships run too deep and are too longstanding.
I noticed recently that the catastrophe area that was once the great city of Detroit — bankruptcy, busted neighborhoods, acres of deserted houses, water shutdowns, and now, as TomDispatch regular Laura Gottesdiener reports, an almost biblical foreclosure crisis that could result in tens of thousands of people being thrown out of their homes — regularly gets compared to “Katrina”; that is, to the destruction Hurricane Katrina visited on New Orleans back in 2005. Here are some typical headlines: “Is the Motor City ‘a five-decade Katrina?,’” “Unprecedented ‘Katrina’ of Tax Foreclosures to Hit Detroit, Wayne County March 31,” “Water Shutoffs: Detroit’s Katrina?,” “Comparing Detroit to Nola After Katrina Not So Far Off,” “A Hurricane Without Water: Foreclosure Crisis Looms in Detroit as State Takes Action.”
But in a country in which Congress has trouble raising money for essential highway upkeep, not a single mile of real high-speed rail exists (the Acela Express in the Northeast being a high-speed joke), the national infrastructure gets a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers, and one of its formerly great cities makes the phrase “hollowed out” sound like a euphemism, perhaps we should change our metaphors. Maybe when something devastates part of this country, it’s not a “Katrina” any longer, but a “Detroit.” Maybe the next time a city is hit by a hurricane, the headlines should refer to it as “a five-hour Detroit.” Maybe when the next set of aging natural gas pipelines blows up, we should speak of “an underground Detroit.”
It’s a small wonder of American life that something close to a trillion dollars a year goes into what is called “national security,” while the actual security of Americans has generally been starved of funding and insecurity is on the rise. Meanwhile, the biblical continues to happen to the former Motor City, a sign of what neglect means in the insecure heartland of twenty-first-century America. Gottesdiener, TomDispatch’s roving correspondent in forgotten America, offers a devastating account of the latest chapter in the saga of a city on the road to hell. Tom Engelhardt
A foreclosure conveyor belt
The continuing depopulation of detroit
By Laura Gottesdiener
Unlike so many industrial innovations, the revolving door was not developed in Detroit. It took its first spin in Philadelphia in 1888, the brainchild of Theophilus Van Kannel, the soon-to-be founder of the Van Kannel Revolving Door Company. Its purpose was twofold: to better insulate buildings from the cold and to allow greater numbers of people easier entry at any given time.
On March 31st at the Wayne Country Treasurer’s Office, that Victorian-era invention was accomplishing neither objective. Then again, no door in the history of architecture — rotating or otherwise — could have accommodated the latest perversity Detroit officials were inflicting on city residents: the potential eviction of tens of thousands, possibly as many as 100,000 people, all at precisely the same time.
Little wonder that it seemed as if everyone was getting stuck in the rotating doors of that Wayne County office building on the last day residents could pay their past-due property taxes or enter a payment plan to do so. Those who didn’t, the city warned, would lose their homes to tax foreclosure, the process by which a local government repossesses a house because of unpaid property taxes.
Zeynep Tufekci writes: The machine hums along, quietly scanning the slides, generating Pap smear diagnostics, just the way a college-educated, well-compensated lab technician might.
A robot with emotion-detection software interviews visitors to the United States at the border. In field tests, this eerily named “embodied avatar kiosk” does much better than humans in catching those with invalid documentation. Emotional-processing software has gotten so good that ad companies are looking into “mood-targeted” advertising, and the government of Dubai wants to use it to scan all its closed-circuit TV feeds.
Yes, the machines are getting smarter, and they’re coming for more and more jobs.
Not just low-wage jobs, either.
Today, machines can process regular spoken language and not only recognize human faces, but also read their expressions. They can classify personality types, and have started being able to carry out conversations with appropriate emotional tenor.
Machines are getting better than humans at figuring out who to hire, who’s in a mood to pay a little more for that sweater, and who needs a coupon to nudge them toward a sale. In applications around the world, software is being used to predict whether people are lying, how they feel and whom they’ll vote for.
To crack these cognitive and emotional puzzles, computers needed not only sophisticated, efficient algorithms, but also vast amounts of human-generated data, which can now be easily harvested from our digitized world. The results are dazzling. Most of what we think of as expertise, knowledge and intuition is being deconstructed and recreated as an algorithmic competency, fueled by big data.
But computers do not just replace humans in the workplace. They shift the balance of power even more in favor of employers. Our normal response to technological innovation that threatens jobs is to encourage workers to acquire more skills, or to trust that the nuances of the human mind or human attention will always be superior in crucial ways. But when machines of this capacity enter the equation, employers have even more leverage, and our standard response is not sufficient for the looming crisis. [Continue reading…]
The idea that through a ‘$13 billion settlement’ the Justice Dept cracked down on Chase was a carefully contrived fiction
Matt Taibbi reports: The average person had no way of knowing what a terrible deal the Chase settlement [reached in September, 2013] was for the country. The terms were even lighter than the slap-on-the-wrist formula that allowed Wall Street banks to “neither admit nor deny” wrongdoing – the deals that had helped spark the Occupy protests. Yet those notorious deals were like the Nuremberg hangings compared to the regulatory innovation that Holder’s Justice Department cooked up for Dimon and Co.
Instead of a detailed complaint naming names, Chase was allowed to sign a flimsy, 10-and-a-half-page “statement of facts” that was: (a) so short, a first-year law student could read it in the time it takes to eat a tuna sandwich, and (b) so vague, a halfway intelligent person could read it and not know anyone had done anything wrong.
The ink was barely dry on the deal before Chase would have the balls to insinuate its innocence. “The firm has not admitted to violations of the law,” said CFO Marianne Lake. But the deal’s most brazen innovation was the way it bypassed the judicial branch. Previously, federal regulators had had bad luck with judges when trying to dole out slap-on-the-wrist settlements to banks. In a pair of celebrated cases, an unpleasantly honest federal judge named Jed Rakoff had rejected sweetheart deals worked out between banks and slavish regulators and had commanded the state to go back to the drawing board and come up with real punishments.
Seemingly not wanting to deal with even the possibility of such a thing happening, Holder blew off the idea of showing the settlement to a judge. The settlement, says Kelleher, “was unprecedented in many ways, including being very carefully crafted to bypass the court system. . . . There can be little doubt that the DOJ and JP-Morgan were trying to avoid disclosure of their dirty deeds and prevent public scrutiny of their sweetheart deal.” Kelleher asks a rhetorical question: “Can you imagine the outcry if [Bush-era Attorney General] Alberto Gonzales had gone into the backroom and given Halliburton immunity in exchange for a billion dollars?”
The deal was widely considered a good one for both sides, but Chase emerged with barely a scratch. First, the ludicrously nonspecific language surrounding the settlement put you, me and every other American taxpayer on the hook for roughly a quarter of Chase’s check. Because most of the settlement monies were specifically not called fines or penalties, Chase was allowed to treat some $7 billion of the settlement as a tax write-off.
Couple this with the fact that the bank’s share price soared six percent on news of the settlement, adding more than $12 billion in value to shareholders, and one could argue Chase actually made money from the deal. What’s more, to defray the cost of this and other fines, Chase last year laid off 7,500 lower-level employees. Meanwhile, per-employee compensation for everyone else rose four percent, to $122,653. But no one made out better than Dimon. The board awarded a 74 percent raise to the man who oversaw the biggest regulatory penalty ever, upping his compensation package to about $20 million. [Continue reading…]
Bloomberg Businessweek reports: In October 2010, a Federal Bureau of Investigation system monitoring U.S. Internet traffic picked up an alert. The signal was coming from Nasdaq. It looked like malware had snuck into the company’s central servers. There were indications that the intruder was not a kid somewhere, but the intelligence agency of another country. More troubling still: When the U.S. experts got a better look at the malware, they realized it was attack code, designed to cause damage.
As much as hacking has become a daily irritant, much more of it crosses watch-center monitors out of sight from the public. The Chinese, the French, the Israelis — and many less well known or understood players — all hack in one way or another. They steal missile plans, chemical formulas, power-plant pipeline schematics, and economic data. That’s espionage; attack code is a military strike. There are only a few recorded deployments, the most famous being the Stuxnet worm. Widely believed to be a joint project of the U.S. and Israel, Stuxnet temporarily disabled Iran’s uranium-processing facility at Natanz in 2010. It switched off safety mechanisms, causing the centrifuges at the heart of a refinery to spin out of control. Two years later, Iran destroyed two-thirds of Saudi Aramco’s computer network with a relatively unsophisticated but fast-spreading “wiper” virus. One veteran U.S. official says that when it came to a digital weapon planted in a critical system inside the U.S., he’s seen it only once — in Nasdaq.
The October alert prompted the involvement of the National Security Agency, and just into 2011, the NSA concluded there was a significant danger. A crisis action team convened via secure videoconference in a briefing room in an 11-story office building in the Washington suburbs. Besides a fondue restaurant and a CrossFit gym, the building is home to the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center (NCCIC), whose mission is to spot and coordinate the government’s response to digital attacks on the U.S. They reviewed the FBI data and additional information from the NSA, and quickly concluded they needed to escalate.
Thus began a frenzied five-month investigation that would test the cyber-response capabilities of the U.S. and directly involve the president. Intelligence and law enforcement agencies, under pressure to decipher a complex hack, struggled to provide an even moderately clear picture to policymakers. After months of work, there were still basic disagreements in different parts of government over who was behind the incident and why. “We’ve seen a nation-state gain access to at least one of our stock exchanges, I’ll put it that way, and it’s not crystal clear what their final objective is,” says House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, a Republican from Michigan, who agreed to talk about the incident only in general terms because the details remain classified. “The bad news of that equation is, I’m not sure you will really know until that final trigger is pulled. And you never want to get to that.”
Bloomberg Businessweek spent several months interviewing more than two dozen people about the Nasdaq attack and its aftermath, which has never been fully reported. Nine of those people were directly involved in the investigation and national security deliberations; none were authorized to speak on the record. “The investigation into the Nasdaq intrusion is an ongoing matter,” says FBI New York Assistant Director in Charge George Venizelos. “Like all cyber cases, it’s complex and involves evidence and facts that evolve over time.”
While the hack was successfully disrupted, it revealed how vulnerable financial exchanges—as well as banks, chemical refineries, water plants, and electric utilities—are to digital assault. One official who experienced the event firsthand says he thought the attack would change everything, that it would force the U.S. to get serious about preparing for a new era of conflict by computer. He was wrong. [Continue reading…]
AMY GOODMAN: Who was tougher on corporate America, President Obama or President Bush?
MATT TAIBBI: Oh, Bush, hands down. And this is an important point to make, because if you go back to the early 2000s, think about all these high-profile cases: Adelphia, Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Arthur Andersen. All of these companies were swept up by the Bush Justice Department. And what’s interesting about this is that you can see a progression. If you go back to the savings and loan crisis in the late ’80s, which was an enormous fraud problem, but it paled in comparison to the subprime mortgage crisis, we put about 800 people in jail during—in the aftermath of that crisis. You fast-forward 10 or 15 years to the accounting scandals, like Enron and Adelphia and Tyco, we went after the heads of some of those companies. It wasn’t as vigorous as the S&L prosecutions, but we at least did it. At least George Bush recognized the symbolic importance of showing ordinary Americans that justice is blind, right?
Fast-forward again to the next big crisis, and how many people have we got—have we actually put in jail? Zero. And this was a crisis that was much huger in scope than the S&L crisis or the accounting crisis. I mean, it wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth, and nobody went to jail, so that we’re now in a place where we don’t even recognize the importance of keeping up appearances when it comes to making things look equal.
One simple phrase electrified the financial world this past week: high-frequency trading.
With the publication of his new book, Flash Boys, author Michael Lewis almost singlehandedly transformed the growing practice of high-frequency trading from an obscure form of financial wizardry cooked up in Wall Street’s mad laboratories into a fledgling scandal. What’s high-frequency trading? It’s when lightning-quick computers running complex algorithms race ahead of ordinary human investors — you know, those guys with the funny jackets waving and yelling on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange — to gain the slightest advantage in the trading of stocks. For high-frequency traders, speed means getting valuable market information a few hundredths or millionths of a second early, which in turn can mean millions in profit simply by beating the regular guys to the trade. If it sounds complicated, well, that’s the point. “The insiders are able to move faster than you,” Lewis said on 60 Minutes. “They’re able to see your order and play it against other orders in ways that you don’t understand. They’re able to front run your order.”
Lewis’s Flash Boys tells the story of a Canadian banker and do-gooder named Brad Katsuyama who, outraged over this “rigged” market, did something about it. Judging by the reaction in some corners of the financial world, you’d think Lewis had declared war on Wall Street itself. (See, for instance, this verbal slug-fest on CNBC involving Lewis, Katsuyama, and the CEO of one of the exchanges Lewis takes to task in his book.)
The opprobrium greeting Flash Boys wouldn’t be quite as ridiculous if we didn’t already know how dangerous high-frequency trading can be. As Nick Baumann wrote in Mother Jones magazine, high-frequency trading gone haywire can inflict huge damage, as was the case in the so-called flash crash of 2010, which wiped out almost $1 trillion in shareholder value in a few hours. If several flash crashes occur at the same time, former bank regulator Bill Black told Baumann, “financial institutions can begin to fail, even very large ones.”
If Wall Street’s need for speed doesn’t cause the next Great Crash, TomDispatch regular Laura Gottesdiener knows what might. As she wrote in November, massive investment firms are building a “rental empire,” buying up foreclosed properties by the thousands, renting them back to working people, and bundling up those properties to sell to Wall Street. It’s an ingenious scheme reminiscent of the subprime mortgage machine — and this scheme, too, has the potential to plunge us back into a crisis. Today, Gottesidener turns her sights to New York City, where the rental racket has been underway for years and the results have been instructively grim. Andy Kroll
When predatory equity hit the Big Apple
How private equity came to New York’s rental market — and what that tells us about the future
By Laura Gottesdiener
Things are heating up inside Wall Street’s new rental empire.
Over the last few years, giant private equity firms have bet big on the housing market, buying up more than 200,000 cheap homes across the country. Their plan is to rent the houses back to families — sometimes the very same people who were displaced during the foreclosure crisis — while waiting for the home values to rise. But it wouldn’t be Wall Street not to have a short-term trick up its sleeve, so the private equity firms are partnering with big banks to bundle the mortgages on these rental homes into a new financial product known as “rental-backed securities.” (Remember that toxic “mortgage-backed securities” are widely blamed for crashing the global economy in 2007-2008.)
All this got me thinking: Have private equity firms gambled with rental housing somewhere else before? If so, what happened?
Bloomberg reports: The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is examining the exposure of stock exchanges, brokerages and other Wall Street firms to cyber-attacks that have been called a threat to financial stability.
The SEC held a roundtable discussion of those risks in Washington today as it weighs a proposal to require stock exchanges to protect their critical technology and tell members about breaches of important systems. More than half of exchanges surveyed globally in 2012 said they experienced a cyber-attack, while 67 percent of U.S. exchanges said a hacker tried to penetrate their systems.
Dennis Fisher writes: Costin Raiu is a cautious man. He measures his words carefully and says exactly what he means, and is not given to hyperbole or exaggeration. Raiu is the driving force behind much of the intricate research into APTs and targeted attacks that Kaspersky Lab’s Global Research and Analysis Team has been doing for the last few years, and he has first-hand knowledge of the depth and breadth of the tactics that top-tier attackers are using.
So when Raiu says he conducts his online activities under the assumption that his movements are being monitored by government hackers, it is not meant as a scare tactic. It is a simple statement of fact.
“I operate under the principle that my computer is owned by at least three governments,” Raiu said during a presentation he gave to industry analysts at the company’s analyst summit here on Thursday.
The comment drew some chuckles from the audience, but Raiu was not joking. Security experts for years have been telling users — especially enterprise users — to assume that their network or PC is compromised. The reasoning is that if you assume you’re owned then you’ll be more cautious about what you do. It’s the technical equivalent of telling a child to behave as if his mother is watching everything he does. It doesn’t always work, but it can’t hurt.
Raiu and his fellow researchers around the world are obvious targets for highly skilled attackers of all stripes. They spend their days analyzing new attack techniques and working out methods for countering them. Intelligence agencies, APT groups and cybercrime gangs all would love to know what researchers know and how they get their information. Just about every researcher has a story about being attacked or compromised at some point. It’s an occupational hazard.
But one of the things that the events of the last year have made clear is that the kind of paranoia and caution that Raiu and others who draw the attention of attackers employ as a matter of course should now be the default setting for the rest of us, as well. As researcher Claudio Guarnieri recently detailed, the Internet itself is compromised. Not this bit or that bit. The entire network. [Continue reading…]
Last year, CSIS reported: After years of guesswork and innumerable attempts to quantify the costly effects of cybercrime on the U.S. and world economies, McAfee engaged one of the world’s preeminent international policy institutions for defense and security, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to build an economic model and methodology to accurately estimate these losses, which can be extended worldwide. “Estimating the Cost of Cybercrime and Cyber Espionage” posits a $100 billion annual loss to the U.S. economy and as many as 508,000 U.S. jobs lost as a result of malicious cyber activity.