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“The opposite of knowledge is not ignorance, but deceit and fraud”*…

In follow-on to our last look at corporate fraud, a provocative piece by Byrne Hobart

This paper has been getting some attention lately for its eye-catching estimates: 11% of publicly traded companies are committing securities fraud every year, with an annual cost of over $700bn…

[There follows an illuminating discussion of lessons that can be drawn for the follow-on to Arthur Andersen’s collapse after the implosion of Enron, the rules/regulations developed then to prevent similar public company frauds, and a consideration of whether corporate fraud has waned– at least among publicly-traded companies– and is perhaps a little less wide-spread than the paper argues…]

But since fraud is a human problem, and not purely a matter of better accounting standards, it’s not likely to have just gone away. But if the rate of accounting problems among big publicly-traded companies is lower than the 11% number cited in the paper, the question isn’t “why did it disappear?” but rather “where did it go?” And we can take our list of trends against fraud and invert them:

• Sarbanes-Oxley does apply to private companies, but only on the penalty side, not the disclosure side. But accounting frauds in private companies are often less visible; many investments go to zero, anyway, and it’s less embarrassing for everyone involved not to say why.

• There are no short-sellers in private markets. There have been efforts here, but they don’t work out because the market doesn’t clear (“everyone wanted to short Theranos, Dropbox and WeWork”). The closest you can get to shorting is to pass on a round and then brag about it later. Big deal: I didn’t invest in FTX, either.

• There’s less data available on private companies, though the rise of alternative data tools means it’s easier to get decent proxies.

• Startups are not expected to return capital. It’s a bad sign if they do. They’re often valued either based on strategic considerations or starting with a multiple of sales—a dollar of sales is much easier to fake than a dollar of earnings or cash flow, so the incentive to do so is strong.

• The idea market in startups is liquid when it comes to successes, but it would be pretty tacky for a VC to write a long blog post explaining why they passed on a live deal. (That memo may exist internally, but to the extent that it’s shared it’s in the form of a quick summary over Twitter DM or Signal.)

JPMorgan Chase’s writedown of their fintech acquisition Frank is a great case study in all of these forces. The NYT has a good story digging into the details: Frank’s founder is a serial exaggerator whose self-promotion veered into fraud (once again, if the rate of continuous improvement in public perception to be maintained exceeds what the fundamentals can deliver, compound interest works its ruthless magic). The company was valued at a high multiple of what turned out to be a flexible metric, total email addresses captured. And there were alternative datasets that could have pointed to problems: given the likely number of student aid applicants in the US, Frank’s numbers implied that it had reached near-dominant market share in the category with little marketing. Meanwhile, its monthly site traffic was not enough to have acquired that sizable a customer list over Frank’s entire existence. So it could have been caught, if the buyer had been looking for fraud. But one paradox of frauds and cheats in general is that lying is less than half the work—most of the effort is in appearing not to need to lie. The more impressive a company looks, the more embarrassing the basic due diligence questions are.

A down market and a series of high-profile failures might give private markets the same kind of natural experiment that Arthur Andersen’s failure did for public markets. Due diligence checklists will get longer and more thorough, and new funding rounds will feel more like a cross-examination and less like a party. One reason for a high base rate of fraud is that at least some of it stems from inattention rather than malice—the Arthur Andersen study finds that most of the frauds were fairly minor, and could be more the result of poor internal metrics than of intent to mislead. But either way, standards will get higher, and private companies will need to step up their efforts accordingly…

Has the primary locus of corporate fraud moved from public to private companies? “Where Fraud Lives and Why,” from @ByrneHobart.

[Image above: source]

* Jean Baudrillard

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As we do due diligence, we might recall that it was on this date in 2016 that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) sent a letter to Theranos after an inspection of its Newark, California, lab. The investigation, which took place in the fall of 2015, had found that the facility did not “comply with certificate requirements and performance standards” and caused “immediate jeopardy to patient health and safety.” This followed on three exposes on Theranos in the Wall Street Journal (in October [here and here] and December of 2015) and a critical FDA report. Things unraveled from there: in March, 2018, Thearnos, CEO Elizabeth Holmes, and President Sunny Balwani were charged by the FCC with fraud. Three month later, a federal grand jury indicted both Holmes and Balwani on two counts of conspiracy and nine counts of wire fraud, finding that the pair had “engaged in a multi-million dollar scheme to defraud investors, and a separate scheme to defraud doctors and patients.” Theranos closed in 2018. Holmes was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison for her crimes (a sentence she is appealing); Balwani, to 13 years.

Theranos was a private company, funded by investors including Henry Kissinger, Betsy DeVos, Carlos Slim, and Rupert Murdoch.

Elizabeth Holmes found guilty (source)

“Fortune favors the brave”*…

Cryptonauts

History is filled with almosts. With those who almost adventured, who almost achieved, but ultimately, for them it proved to be too much. Then, there are others. The ones who embrace the moment, and commit. And in these moments of truth . . . they calm their minds and steel their nerves with four simple words that have been whispered by the intrepid since the time of the Romans. Fortune favours the brave.

Adam Tooze been mulling these lines ever since he first saw the commercial for crypto.com done by Matt Damon during a football game back in the autumn of 2021:

Now he unpacks the backstory…

The phrase “fortune favors the brave” is generally attributed to Pliny the Elder, the obsessive scholar and Roman Fleet commander. He uttered it on the fateful night of August 24 79 AD when the volcano Vesuvius erupted and buried Herculaneum and Pompeii. As recalled 25 years later, at the request of Tacitus, by his nephew Pliny the Younger, Pliny the Elder ignored the advice of his helmsman and steered directly towards the eruption, hoping to pull off a famous rescue. Instead, he was overwhelmed, lost control of the situation and finally, in ridiculous circumstances, succumbed to the fumes, becoming one of the thousands of casualties…

You might say that evoking Pliny’s famous phrase was more apt than Damon or crypto.com realized.

But Vesuvius does not belong only to the classical tradition. In the 18th century, the volcano would become one of the quintessential sites of the romantic sublime…

A fascinating “close read” of an influential TV spot, its intellectual antecedents, and its (intended and unintended) message: “Fortune Favors the Brave: the making of crypto ideology, Vesuvius, and the romantic sublime,” from @adam_tooze.

* Pliny the Younger, “quoting” Pliny the Elder

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As we iron out the irony, we might recall that, on this date in 2008, the Dow Jones Average fell 8%, continuing a slide that had begun with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and other smaller financial firms. The DJI was at 8,149.09, roughly the midpoint (in both timing) of the sub-prime lending crisis and the Dow’s 54% fall to 6,469.95 (in March, 2009) from its peak of 14,164 on October 9, 2007. The recovery, of course, took much longer.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 1, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Location, location, location”*…

Adam Tooze on the biggest vulnerability in the global economy…

In this precarious moment – in the fourth quarter of 2022, two years into the recovery from COVID – of all the forces driving towards an abrupt and disruptive global slowdown, by far the largest is the threat of a global housing shock…

In the global economy there are three really large asset classes: the equities issued by corporations ($109 trillion); the debt securities issued by corporations and governments ($123 trillion); and real estate, which is dominated by residential real estate, valued worldwide at $258 trillion. Commercial real estate ($32.6 trillion) and agricultural land add another $68 trillion. If economic news were reported more sensibly, indices of global real estate would figure every day alongside the S&P500 and the Nasdaq. The surge in global house prices in 2019-2021 added tens of trillions to measured global wealth. If that unwinds it will deliver a huge recessionary shock.

In regional terms, as a first approximation, think of global real estate assets as split four ways, with the US, China and the EU each accounting for c. 20-22 percent and 35 percent or so belonging to the rest of the world.

The housing complex is at the heart of the capitalist economy. Construction is a major industry worldwide. It is one of the classic drivers of the business-cycle. But beyond the constructive industry itself, the influence of housing as an asset class is pervasive. Compared to equities or debt securities, residential real estate is owned in a relatively decentralized way. Homeownership defines the middle class. And for the majority of households in that class, those with any measurable net worth, the home is the main marketable asset.

Middle-class households are for the most part undiversified and unhedged speculators in one asset, their home. Furthermore, since homes are the only asset that most households can use as collateral, they pile on leverage. For households, as for firms, leverage promises outsized gains, but also brings with it serious risks in the event of a downturn. Mortgage and rental payments are generally the largest single item in household budgets. And household spending, which accounts for 60 percent of GDP in a typical OECD member, is also responsive to perceived household wealth and thus to home equity – the balance between home prices and the mortgages secured on it. For all of these reasons, a surge in mortgage rates and/or a slump in house prices is a very big deal for the world economy and for society more generally…

More background and an assessment of the outlook: “The global housing downturn,” from @adam_tooze.

For Tooze’s follow-up piece on the risk inherent in the $23 trillion US Treasury market, see here.

Harold Samuel

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As we mortgage our futures, we might recall that it was on this date in 1914 that the Federal Reserve Bank of the U.S. was opened. In actuality a network of 12 regional banks, joined in the Federal Reserve System, they oversee federally-chartered banks in their regions and are jointly responsible for implementing the monetary policy set forth by the Federal Open Market Committee.

In that latter role, they are central to the housing market in that they set interest rates and purchase mortgage securities from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (Government-Sponsored Enterprises in the mortgage market). At this point the Fed owns about a quarter of the mortgage-backed securities issued by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The Federal Reserve Banks in 1936 (source)

Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 16, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The essence of investment management is the management of risks, not the management of returns”*…

Paris Bourse

In 1754, the infamous scam artist, diarist, and womanizer Giacomo Girolamo Casanova reported that a certain type of high-stakes wager had come into vogue at the Ridotto. The bet was known as a martingale, which we would immediately recognize as a rather basic coin toss. In a matter of seconds, the martingale could deliver dizzying jackpots or, equally as often, ruination. In terms of duration, it was the equivalent of today’s high-speed trade. The only extraordinary fact about the otherwise simple martingale was that everybody knew the infallible strategy for winning: if a player were to put money on the same outcome every time, again and again ad infinitum, the laws of probability dictated that not only would he win back all he may have previously lost, he would double his money. The only catch was that he would have to double down each time, a strategy that could be sustained only as long as the gambler remained solvent. On numerous occasions, martingales left Casanova bankrupt.

In modern finance, the coin toss has come to represent a great deal more than heads or tails. The concept of the martingale is a bulwark of what economists call the efficient-market hypothesis, the meaning of which can be grasped by an oft-repeated saying on Wall Street: for every person who believes a stock will rise—the buyer—there will be some other equal and opposite person who believes the stock will fall—the seller. Even as markets go haywire, brokers and traders repeat the mantra: for every buyer, there is a seller. But the avowed aim of the hedge fund, like the fantasy of a coin-tosser on the brink of bankruptcy, was to evade the rigid fifty-fifty chances of the martingale. The dream was heads I win, tails you lose.

One premonition as to how such hedged bets could be constructed appeared in print around the time when gambling reached an apex at the Ridotto casino, when an eighteenth-century financial writer named Nicolas Magens published “An Essay on Insurances.” Magens was the first to specify the word “option” as a contractual term: “The Sum given is called Premium, and the Liberty that the Giver of the Premium has to have the Contract fulfilled or not, is called Option . . .” The option is presented as a defense against financial loss, a structure that would eventually make it an indispensable tool for hedge funds.

By the middle of the next century, large-scale betting on stocks and bonds was under way on the Paris Bourse. The exchange, located behind a panoply of Corinthian columns, along with its unofficial partner market, called the Coulisse, was clearing more than a hundred billion francs that could change volume, speed, and direction. One of the most widely traded financial instruments on the Bourse was a debt vehicle known as a rente, which usually guaranteed a three-per-cent return in annual interest. As the offering dates and interest rates of these rentes shifted, their prices fluctuated in relationship to one another.

Somewhere among the traders lurked a young man named Louis Bachelier. Although he was born into a well-to-do family—his father was a wine merchant and his maternal grandfather a banker—his parents died when he was a teen-ager, and he had to put his academic ambitions on hold until his adulthood. Though no one knows exactly where he worked, everyone agrees that Bachelier was well acquainted with the workings of the Bourse. His subsequent research suggests that he had noted the propensity of the best traders to take an array of diverse and even contradictory positions. Though one might expect that placing so many bets in so many different directions on so many due dates would guarantee chaos, these expert traders did it in such a way as to decrease their risk. At twenty-two, after his obligatory military service, Bachelier was able to enroll at the Sorbonne. In 1900, he submitted his doctoral dissertation on a subject that few had ever researched before: a mathematical analysis of option trading on rentes.

Bachelier’s dissertation, “The Theory of Speculation,” is recognized as the first to use calculus to analyze trading on the floor of an exchange, and it contained a startling claim: “I have in fact known for several years that it would be possible . . . to imagine transactions where one of the parties makes a profit at all prices.” The best traders on the Bourse knew how to establish an intricate set of positions designed to protect themselves no matter which way or at what speed the market might move. Bachelier’s process was to separate out each element that had gone into the complex of bets at different prices, and write equations for them. His committee, supervised by the renowned mathematician and theoretical physicist Henri Poincaré, was impressed, but it was an unusual thesis. “The subject chosen by M. Bachelier is rather far away from those usually treated by our candidates,” the report noted. For work that would unleash billion-dollar torrents into the capital pools of future hedge funds, Bachelier received a grade of honorable instead of très honorable. It was a B.

Needless to say, Bachelier’s views of math’s application to finance [published in 1900] were ahead of his time. The implications of his work were not appreciated, much less exploited, by Wall Street until the nineteen-seventies, after his dissertation was discovered by the Nobel Prize winner Paul Samuelson, the author of one of the best-selling economics textbooks of all time, who pushed for its translation into English. Two economists, Fischer Black and Myron Scholes, read the work and, in a 1973 issue of the Journal of Political Economy, published one of the most famous articles in the history of quantitative finance.

Based on Bachelier’s dissertation, the economists developed the eponymous Black-Scholes model for option pricing. They established that an option could be priced from a set-in-stone mathematical equation, which allowed the Chicago Board Options Exchange (C.B.O.E.), a new organization, to expand their business to a new universe of financial derivatives. Within a year, more than twenty thousand option contracts were changing hands each day. Four years after that, the C.B.O.E. introduced the “put” option—thus institutionalizing the bet that the thing you were betting on would lose. “Profit at all prices” had joined the mainstream of both economic theory and practice…

From the remarkable story of the French dissertation that inspired the strategies that guide many modern investors ad al that it has wrought: “A Brief History of the Hedge Fund.”

Spoiler alert: it hasn’t always worked out so well (c.f. Long-Term Capital Management)… at least for investors. As Janet M. Tavakoli observed in Structured Finance and Collateralized Debt Obligations: New Developments in Cash and Synthetic Securitization

Hedge funds have made massive leveraged credit bets, knowing that their upside is billions in fees and their downside is millions in fees.

Benjamin Graham

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As we ruminate on risk, we might recall that it was on this date in 2020 that the Federal Reserve rode in to rescue financial markets to prevent their complete freezing up– which could have entered history books as another global mega-crash. The Dow Jones stock market index had hit an all-time record of 29,551 on February 12, 2020. Then, the coronavirus emerged in earnest in the U.S., unemployment soared, and on March 9 the DJIA took a dive of over 2,000 points; it continued to fall, down to 18,321 on March 23… at which point the Fed intervened, pouring vast sums of cash into the financial system, resulting in a stock market bonanza in the midst of the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. The Dow stands at this writing at over 35,000.

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“You’re mugging old ladies every bit as much if you pinch their pension fund”*…

Who benefits from the commercial biomedical research and development (R&D)? Patients-consumers and investors-shareholders have traditionally been viewed as two distinct groups with conflicting interests: shareholders seek maximum profits, patients – maximum clinical benefit. However, what happens when patients are the shareholders?…

Adding investments by governmentally-mandated retirement schemes, central and promotional banks, and sovereign wealth funds to tax-derived governmental financing shows that the majority of biomedical R&D funding is public in origin. Despite this, even in the high-income countries patients can be denied access to effective treatments due to their high cost. Since these costs are set by the drug development firms that are owned in substantial part by the retirement accounts of said patients, the complex financial architecture of biomedical R&D may be inconsistent with the objectives of the ultimate beneficiaries…

It has been estimated that of the total $265 billion spent annually on biomedical research worldwide, over a third – $103 billion comes from public sources. Nevertheless, as public input capital is allocated predominantly into early stage research, nearly all output – medicines – is ultimately brought to the market by private firms. Importantly, these firms are not independent agents. They have owners-shareholders to report to. Until the end of the previous century the major type of owners-shareholders were individual households. At the turn of the millennium, however, they have been displaced by institutional investors, the largest of which are public retirements schemes or quasi-public funds, such as occupational pensions.

First, government money underwrites the basic R&D that goes into drug discovery and development, then public pension monies fund the private companies that bring those drugs to market. As the private companies are solving for highest profits, as opposed to optimal public health, those drugs are often priced out of the reach of the very people whose pension contributions funded their development. Drugs “priced out of reach” is certainly not a new phenomenon; AIDS drugs (to take one example) were priced by Western pharma companies at prices that rendered them inaccessible to most citizens of low-income countries in Africa and Asia. The pensioners in wealthy nations were, effectively, living off of the misery of those in poorer companies.

But the dynamic has continued, deepened– and come home to roost. Now patients in high-income countries are denied access to effective treatments due to their high cost, while these costs are being set by the drug development firms, owned in substantial part by the retirement accounts of those same patients, and benefiting from direct and indirect governmental support.

Investing in one’s own misery– the painful irony of pharma funding: “Pension and state funds dominating biomedical R&D investment: fiduciary duty and public health.”

[Image above: source]

* Ben Elton, Meltdown

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As we untangle unintended consequences, we might send healthy birthday greetings to Charles Value Chapin; he was born on this date in 1856. A physician and epidemiologist, he was a pioneer in American public health. He co-founded in first bacteriological laboratory in the U.S. (in 1888) in Providence, were he was Superintendent of Health– a position he held for 48 years. In 1910, he established Providence City Hospital where infectious disease carriers could be isolated under aseptic nursing conditions; his success inspired similar health control measures throughout the U.S. A professor (at Brown) and prolific writer, his impact on health policy and practice was so broad that he was hailed as “the Dean of City Public Health Officials.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 17, 2021 at 1:01 am

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