Explosive Report Details Chinese Infiltration Of Apple, Amazon And The CIA

One week ago, President Trump stood up at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council and accused China of attempting to tamper with US elections – mimicking some of the same allegations that had first been levied against Russia nearly two years prior. In his speech, Trump claimed that China was working to undermine Republicans, and even the president himself, warning that “it’s not just Russia, it’s China and Russia.” While the media largely shrugged off this proclamation as more presidential bombast probably inspired by the burgeoning US-China trade beef, the administration continued to insist that it was taking a harder line against Chinese efforts to subvert American companies to aide the Communist Party’s sprawling intelligence apparatus. As if to underline Trump’s point, the FBI had arrested a Taiwanese national in Chicago the day before Trump’s speech, accusing the 27-year-old suspect of trying to help China flip eight defense contractors who could have provided crucial intelligence on sensitive defense-related technology.

But in a game-changing report published Thursday morning, Bloomberg Businessweek exposed a sprawling multi-year investigation into China’s infiltration of US corporate and defense infrastructure. Most notably, it confirmed that, in addition to efforts designed to sway US elections, China’s intelligence community orchestrated a pervasive infiltration of servers used to power everything from MRI machines to the drones used by the CIA and army. They accomplished this using a tiny microchip no bigger than a grain of rice.

BBG published the report just hours before Vice President Mike Pence was expected to “string together a narrative of Chinese aggression” during a speech at the Hudson Institute in Washington. According to excerpts leaked to the New York Times, his speech was expected to focus on examples of China’s “aggressive moves against American warships, of predatory behavior against their neighbors, and of a sophisticated influence campaign to tilt the midterms and 2020 elections against President Trump”. His speech is also expected to focus on how China leverages debt and its capital markets to force foreign governments to submit to its will (something that has happened in Bangladesh and the Czech Republic.

China

But while those narratives are certainly important, they pale in comparison to Bloomberg’s revelations, which reported on an ongoing government investigation into China’s use of a “tiny microchip” that found its way into servers that were widely used throughout the US military and intelligence infrastructure, from Navy warships to DoD server farms. The probe began three years ago after the US intelligence agencies were tipped off by Amazon. And three years later, it remains ongoing.

Nested on the servers’ motherboards, the testers found a tiny microchip, not much bigger than a grain of rice, that wasn’t part of the boards’ original design. Amazon reported the discovery to U.S. authorities, sending a shudder through the intelligence community. Elemental’s servers could be found in Department of Defense data centers, the CIA’s drone operations, and the onboard networks of Navy warships. And Elemental was just one of hundreds of Supermicro customers.

During the ensuing top-secret probe, which remains open more than three years later, investigators determined that the chips allowed the attackers to create a stealth doorway into any network that included the altered machines. Multiple people familiar with the matter say investigators found that the chips had been inserted at factories run by manufacturing subcontractors in China.

With those two paragraphs, Bloomberg has succeeded in shifting the prevailing narrative away from Russia and toward China. Or, as Pence is expected to state in Thursday’s speech (via NYT) “as a senior career member of our intelligence community recently told me, what the Russians are doing pales in comparison to what China is doing across this country.”

The story begins with a Silicon Valley startup called Elemental. Founded in 2006 by three engineers who brilliantly anticipated that broadcasters would soon be searching for a way to adapt their programming for streaming over the Internet, and on mobile devices like smartphones, Elemental went about building a “dream team” of coders who designed software to adapt the super-fast graphics chips being designed for video gaming to stream video instead. The company then loaded this software on to special, custom-built servers emblazoned with its logo. These servers then sold for as much as $100,000 a pop – a markup of roughly 70%.  In 2009, the company received its first contract with US defense and intelligence contractors, and even received an investment from a CIA-backed venture fund.

  • Elemental also started working with American spy agencies. In 2009 the company announced a development partnership with In-Q-Tel Inc., the CIA’s investment arm, a deal that paved the way for Elemental servers to be used in national security missions across the U.S. government. Public documents, including the company’s own promotional materials, show that the servers have been used inside Department of Defense data centers to process drone and surveillance-camera footage, on Navy warships to transmit feeds of airborne missions, and inside government buildings to enable secure videoconferencing. NASA, both houses of Congress, and the Department of Homeland Security have also been customers. This portfolio made Elemental a target for foreign adversaries.

Like many other companies, Elementals’ servers utilized motherboards built by Supermicro, which dominates the market for motherboards used in special-purpose computers. It was here, at Supermicro, where the government believes – according to Bloomberg’s sources – that the infiltration began. Before it came to dominate the global market for computer motherboards, Supermicro had humble beginnings. A Taiwanese engineer and his wife founded the company in 1993, at a time when Silicon Valley was embracing outsourcing. It attracted clients early on with the promise of infinite customization, employing a massive team of engineers to make sure it could accommodate its clients’ every need. Customers also appreciated that, while Supermicro’s motherboards were assembled in China or Taiwan, its engineers were based in Silicon Valley. But the company’s workforce featured one characteristic that made it uniquely attractive to China: A sizable portion of its engineers were native Mandarin speakers. One of Bloomberg’s sources said the government is still investigating whether spies were embedded within Supermicro or other US companies).

But however it was done, these tiny microchips somehow found their way into Supermicro’s products. Bloomberg provided a step-by-step guide detailing how it believes that happened.

  • A Chinese military unit designed and manufactured microchips as small as a sharpened pencil tip. Some of the chips were built to look like signal conditioning couplers, and they incorporated memory, networking capability, and sufficient processing power for an attack.
  • The microchips were inserted at Chinese factories that supplied Supermicro, one of the world’s biggest sellers of server motherboards.
  • The compromised motherboards were built into servers assembled by Supermicro.
  • The sabotaged servers made their way inside data centers operated by dozens of companies.
  • When a server was installed and switched on, the microchip altered the operating system’s core so it could accept modifications. The chip could also contact computers controlled by the attackers in search of further instructions and code.

In espionage circles, infiltrating computer hardware – especially to the degree that the Chinese did – is extremely difficult to pull off. And doing it at the nation-state level would be akin to “a unicorn jumping over a rainbow,” as one of BBG’s anonymous sources put it. But China’s dominance of the market for PCs and mobile phones allows it a massive advantage.

One country in particular has an advantage executing this kind of attack: China, which by some estimates makes 75 percent of the world’s mobile phones and 90 percent of its PCs. Still, to actually accomplish a seeding attack would mean developing a deep understanding of a product’s design, manipulating components at the factory, and ensuring that the doctored devices made it through the global logistics chain to the desired location – a feat akin to throwing a stick in the Yangtze River upstream from Shanghai and ensuring that it washes ashore in Seattle. “Having a well-done, nation-state-level hardware implant surface would be like witnessing a unicorn jumping over a rainbow,” says Joe Grand, a hardware hacker and the founder of Grand Idea Studio Inc. “Hardware is just so far off the radar, it’s almost treated like black magic.”

But that’s just what U.S. investigators found: The chips had been inserted during the manufacturing process, two officials say, by operatives from a unit of the People’s Liberation Army. In Supermicro, China’s spies appear to have found a perfect conduit for what U.S. officials now describe as the most significant supply chain attack known to have been carried out against American companies.

Some more details from the report are summarized below:

The government found that the infiltration extended to nearly 30 companies, including Amazon and Apple.

  • One official says investigators found that it eventually affected almost 30 companies, including a major bank, government contractors, and the world’s most valuable company, Apple Inc. Apple was an important Supermicro customer and had planned to order more than 30,000 of its servers in two years for a new global network of data centers. Three senior insiders at Apple say that in the summer of 2015, it, too, found malicious chips on Supermicro motherboards. Apple severed ties with Supermicro the following year, for what it described as unrelated reasons.

Both Amazon and Apple denied having knowledge of the infiltration (Amazon eventually acquired Elemental and integrated it into its Amazon Prime Video service). Meanwhile, the Chinese government issued a conspicuous non-denial denial.

  • In emailed statements, Amazon (which announced its acquisition of Elemental in September 2015), Apple, and Supermicro disputed summaries of Bloomberg Businessweek’s reporting. “It’s untrue that AWS knew about a supply chain compromise, an issue with malicious chips, or hardware modifications when acquiring Elemental,” Amazon wrote. “On this we can be very clear: Apple has never found malicious chips, ‘hardware manipulations’ or vulnerabilities purposely planted in any server,” Apple wrote. “We remain unaware of any such investigation,” wrote a spokesman for Supermicro, Perry Hayes. The Chinese government didn’t directly address questions about manipulation of Supermicro servers, issuing a statement that read, in part, “Supply chain safety in cyberspace is an issue of common concern, and China is also a victim.” The FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, representing the CIA and NSA, declined to comment.

Bloomberg based its story on interviews with 17 anonymous sources, including 6 former government intelligence officials. One official told BBG that China’s long-term goal was “long-term access” to sensitive government secrets.

  • In all, 17 people confirmed the manipulation of Supermicro’s hardware and other elements of the attacks. The sources were granted anonymity because of the sensitive, and in some cases classified, nature of the information.
  • The companies’ denials are countered by six current and former senior national security officials, who – in conversations that began during the Obama administration and continued under the Trump administration – detailed the discovery of the chips and the government’s investigation. One of those officials and two people inside AWS provided extensive information on how the attack played out at Elemental and Amazon; the official and one of the insiders also described Amazon’s cooperation with the government investigation. In addition to the three Apple insiders, four of the six U.S. officials confirmed that Apple was a victim. In all, 17 people confirmed the manipulation of Supermicro’s hardware and other elements of the attacks. The sources were granted anonymity because of the sensitive, and in some cases classified, nature of the information.

One government official says China’s goal was long-term access to high-value corporate secrets and sensitive government networks. No consumer data is known to have been stolen.

Notably, this revelation provides even more support to the Trump administration’s insistence that the trade war with China was based on national security concerns. The hope is that more US companies will shift production of sensitive components back to the US.

  • The ramifications of the attack continue to play out. The Trump administration has made computer and networking hardware, including motherboards, a focus of its latest round of trade sanctions against China, and White House officials have made it clear they think companies will begin shifting their supply chains to other countries as a result. Such a shift might assuage officials who have been warning for years about the security of the supply chain—even though they’ve never disclosed a major reason for their concerns.

As one government official reminds us, the extent of this attack cannot be understated.

  • With more than 900 customers in 100 countries by 2015, Supermicro offered inroads to a bountiful collection of sensitive targets. “Think of Supermicro as the Microsoft of the hardware world,” says a former U.S. intelligence official who’s studied Supermicro and its business model. “Attacking Supermicro motherboards is like attacking Windows. It’s like attacking the whole world.”

But perhaps the most galling aspect of this whole scandal is that the Obama Administration should have seen it coming.

  • Well before evidence of the attack surfaced inside the networks of U.S. companies, American intelligence sources were reporting that China’s spies had plans to introduce malicious microchips into the supply chain. The sources weren’t specific, according to a person familiar with the information they provided, and millions of motherboards are shipped into the U.S. annually. But in the first half of 2014, a different person briefed on high-level discussions says, intelligence officials went to the White House with something more concrete: China’s military was preparing to insert the chips into Supermicro motherboards bound for U.S. companies.

And thanks to Obama having dropped the ball, China managed to pull off the most expansive infiltration of the global supply chain ever discovered by US intelligence.

  • But that’s just what U.S. investigators found: The chips had been inserted during the manufacturing process, two officials say, by operatives from a unit of the People’s Liberation Army. In Supermicro, China’s spies appear to have found a perfect conduit for what U.S. officials now describe as the most significant supply chain attack known to have been carried out against American companies.

The inconspicuous-looking chips were disguised to look like regular components but they helped China open doors that “other hackers could go through” meaning China could potentially manipulate the systems being infiltrated (as a reminder, these chips were found in servers used in the US drone program).

  • The chips on Elemental servers were designed to be as inconspicuous as possible, according to one person who saw a detailed report prepared for Amazon by its third-party security contractor, as well as a second person who saw digital photos and X-ray images of the chips incorporated into a later report prepared by Amazon’s security team. Gray or off-white in color, they looked more like signal conditioning couplers, another common motherboard component, than microchips, and so they were unlikely to be detectable without specialized equipment. Depending on the board model, the chips varied slightly in size, suggesting that the attackers had supplied different factories with different batches.
  • Officials familiar with the investigation say the primary role of implants such as these is to open doors that other attackers can go through. “Hardware attacks are about access,” as one former senior official puts it. In simplified terms, the implants on Supermicro hardware manipulated the core operating instructions that tell the server what to do as data move across a motherboard, two people familiar with the chips’ operation say. This happened at a crucial moment, as small bits of the operating system were being stored in the board’s temporary memory en route to the server’s central processor, the CPU. The implant was placed on the board in a way that allowed it to effectively edit this information queue, injecting its own code or altering the order of the instructions the CPU was meant to follow. Deviously small changes could create disastrous effects.
  • Since the implants were small, the amount of code they contained was small as well. But they were capable of doing two very important things: telling the device to communicate with one of several anonymous computers elsewhere on the internet that were loaded with more complex code; and preparing the device’s operating system to accept this new code. <strong>The illicit chips could do all this because they were connected to the baseboard management controller, a kind of superchip that administrators use to remotely log in to problematic servers, giving them access to the most sensitive code even on machines that have crashed or are turned off.
  • This system could let the attackers alter how the device functioned, line by line, however they wanted, leaving no one the wiser. To understand the power that would give them, take this hypothetical example: Somewhere in the Linux operating system, which runs in many servers, is code that authorizes a user by verifying a typed password against a stored encrypted one. An implanted chip can alter part of that code so the server won’t check for a password—and presto! A secure machine is open to any and all users.

Shortly after the report was published, the US Department of Defense has scheduled a national-security related press conference for 9:30 am ET on Thursday. It didn’t reveal the subject of the briefing, but the timing is certainly suspicious…

But regardless of what is said on Thursday, one thing probably won’t change: Expect to hear a lot less about Russia, and a lot more about China as the deep state’s interference myopic focus on the former shifts to the latter. As Kevin Warsh framed the question during a Thursday interview with CNBC where he asked “are we at the beginning of a 20-year Cold War?” in response to a question about curbing China’s influence – both economically and defensively. We imagine we’ll be hearing a lot more about the breach from senior US officials, including both the vice president and the president himself, in the very near future

Wasting the Lehman Crisis: What Was Not Saved Was the Economy

 

Photo Source futureatlas.com | CC BY 2.0

Today’s financial malaise for pension funds, state and local budgets and underemployment is largely a result of the 2008 bailout, not the crash. What was saved was not only the banks – or more to the point, as Sheila Bair pointed out, their bondholders – but the financial overhead that continues to burden today’s economy.

Also saved was the idea that the economy needs to keep the financial sector solvent by an exponential growth of new debt – and, when that does not suffice, by government purchase of stocks and bonds to support the balance sheets of the wealthiest layer of society. The internal contradiction in this policy is that debt deflation has become so overbearing and dysfunctional that it prevents the economy from growing and carrying its debt burden.

Trying to save the financial overgrowth of debt service by borrowing one’s way out of debt, or by monetary Quantitative Easing re-inflating real estate, stock and bond prices, enables the creditor One Percent to gain, not the indebted 99 Percent in the economy at large. Therefore, from the economy’s vantage point, instead of asking how the banks are to be saved “next time,” the question should be, how should we best let them go under – along with their stockholders, bondholders and uninsured depositors whose hubris imagined that their loans (other peoples’ debts) could go on rising without impoverishing society and preventing creditors from collecting in any event – except from government by gaining control over it.

A basic principle should be the starting point of any macro analysis: The volume of interest-bearing debt tends to outstrip the economy’s ability to pay. This tendency is inherent in the “magic of compound interest.” The exponential growth of debt expands by its own purely mathematical momentum, independently of the economy’s ability to pay – and faster than the non-financial economy grows.

The higher the debt/income ratio rises, the more interest, amortization payments and late fees are extracted from the economy. The resulting debt burden slows the economy, causing defaults. That is what happened in 2008, and is accelerating today as debt ratios are rising for corporate debt, state and local debt, and student debt.

Neither legislators, academics nor the public at large recognize a corollary Second Principle following from the first: An over-indebted economy cannot be saved unless the banks fail. That means writing down the financial claims by the One to Ten Percent – in other words, the net debts owed by the 99 to 90 Percent. Wiping out bad debts involves writing down the “bad savings” that are the counterpart to these debts on the asset side of the balance sheet. Otherwise the economy will suffer debt deflation and austerity.

“Recovery” since 2008 has been much slower than earlier recoveries because debt deflation is siphoning off more and more personal and corporate income. To make matters worse, the bailout’s policy of Quantitative Easing to re-inflate asset prices has reduced rates of return for pension funds, insurance companies and employee retirement savings. This means that more state and local government income must be diverted to meet retirement commitments.

Something has to give, and it is not likely to be the savings of the donor class at the top of the economic pyramid. As a result, the economy at large is threatened with an exponentially expanding erosion of disposable income and net worth for most people and companies. Investment managers are warning of a financial meltdown, given today’s historically high price/earnings ratios for stocks and also for rental properties.

What is not acknowledged is that such a crisis is a precondition for today’s economy to recover from the rising debt/income and debt/GDP ratios that are burdening the United States, Europe and other regions. At least the United States has been able to monetize its budget deficits and subsidize banks to carry its rising debt overhead with yet new debt. The Eurozone has banned budget deficits of over 3 percent of GDP, imposing austerity that leaves the only response to over-indebtedness to be Greek-style austerity: depopulation, shrinking living standards, wipeouts of retirement income and pensions, mortgage defaults, shortening lifespans, and mass selloffs of public infrastructure to foreign financial appropriators.

None of this was spelled out in the September 15 weekend marking the tenth anniversary of Lehman Brothers’ failure and subsequent rescue of Wall Street. President Obama, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and their fellow financial lobbyists at the Federal Reserve and Justice Department are credited with saving “the economy,” as if their donor class on Wall Street was a good proxy for the economy at large. “Saving the economy from a meltdown” has become the euphemism for saving bondholders and other members of the One Percent from taking losses on their bad loans. The “rescue” is Orwellian doublespeak for expropriating over nine million indebted Americans from their homes, while leaving surviving homeowners saddled with enormous bubble-mortgage payments to the FIRE sector’s owners.

What has been put in place is not a restoration of traditional status quo, but a reversal of over a century of central bank policy. Failed banks have not been taken into the public domain. They have been enriched far beyond their former levels. The perpetrators of the collapse have been rewarded, not penalized for lending more than could possibly be paid by NINJA borrowers and speculators whose mortgage applications were doctored by systemic fraud at Countrywide, Washington Mutual, Bank of America, Citigroup and their cohorts.

The $4.3 trillion that could have been used to save debtors was given to the banks and Wall Street firms whose recklessness and outright fraud caused the crisis. The Federal Reserve “cash for trash” swaps with insolvent banks did not restore normalcy or the status quo ante. What occurred was a financial revolution by stealth, reversing the traditional responsibility of creditors to make prudent loans.

Quantitative Easing saved creditors and the largest stockholders and bondholders by lowering the interest rates by enough to make it profitable for new loans to inflate asset prices on credit. This revived the value of collateral backing bank loans and bondholdings. “Saving” the economy in this way actually sacrificed it. That is why our “recovery” is only “on paper,” a result of calculating GDP to include bank earnings and hypothetical homeowner windfalls as rents are soaring.

Among Democrats, the most extreme tunnel vision denying that debt is a problem comes from Paul Krugman: Writing that “The purely financial aspect of the crisis was basically over by the summer of 2009,”[1]he criticized what he called the “bizarre Beltway consensus that despite high unemployment and record low interest rates, debt, not jobs, was the real problem.”

This misses the point that 2009 was the real beginning for most of the nine million homeowners being foreclosed on and evicted from their homes. Consumers found themselves with less income “freely disposable” after paying their monthly FIRE sector nut off the top of their paycheck – housing charges, credit card charges, medical insurance, student debt, FICA withholding and tax withholding. Krugman says that he would have solved the problem by more deficit spending to pump enough money into the economy to enable debtors to keep paying the banks their exponential growth of interest claims.

We are still living in the destabilized, debt-ridden aftermath of such pro-bank advocacy. In the New Yorker, John Cassidy celebrates a book by Columbia professor Adam Tooze promoting the idea that “the economy” cannot exist without the credit (that is, debt) provided by the financial sector.[2]True enough, but does it follow that rescuing the economy must involve rescuing Wall Street and enriching the banks at the expense of the rest of the economy. That conflation is an Orwellian rhetoric of deception that has been introduced to the discussion of how the economy was “rescued” by locking in today’s Great Debt Deflation.

At the neoliberal/neocon Brookings Institution, Treasury secretaries Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner joined with the Federal Reserve’s Ben Bernanke to explain that the public simply didn’t understand how successful they all were in saving not only the banks, but non-bank financial institutions. Unlike Sheila Bair, they did not point out that behind these institutions were the bondholders, the One Percent of savers who held the rest of the economy in debt. Bernanke wrote a Financial Timespiece producing junk statistics purporting to show that there was no underlying debt or financial problem at all, merely a “panic.”[3] To paraphrase, he said: “The crisis was all in the mind folks. Nothing to see here. Keep moving on.” It is as if, as Margaret Thatcher liked to insist, There Is No Alternative.

Can this bailout without debt writedowns really bring prosperity? Can economies achieve growth by “borrowing their way out of debt,” by creating enough new credit to cover the interest charges out of capital gains from the asset-price inflation fueled by new bank credit. That is the logic that has guided the Federal Reserve’s net $4.3 trillion in Quantitative Easing, and the parallel credit creation by the European Central Bank under Mario “Whatever it takes” Draghi. Ellen Brown recently published a review, “Central Banks Have Gone Rogue, Putting Us All at Risk, noting that the ECB has become a major stock buyer.[4]The beneficiaries are the stockholders who are concentrated in the wealthiest percentiles of the population. Governments are not underwriting homeownership or the solvency of labor’s pension plans, but are underwriting the value of collateral backing the savings of the narrow financial class.

The GDP accounts report the widening gap between low government bond rates and the cost of credit to banks compared to the higher rates paid by mortgage borrowers, credit-card holders and student loan customers as “financial services.” What is extracted from the economy is added to the GDP statistic instead of being treated as a subtrahend. This absurd practice reflects the degree to which Wall Street lobbyists have captured economic statistics. The National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) have been turned into a vehicle for deception. What is celebrated as growth of the GDP since 2008 has been mainly the growth in financial extraction, along with the health-insurance sector profiting from Obamacare.

Glenn Hubbard, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under George W. Bush, uses Orwellian doublethink to pretend that “Debt is Wealth.” He concludes a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “An ability to recapitalize banks remains crucial and must be explained to a skeptical Congress and public,”[5] so that wealthy bondholders and speculators will not suffer losses.

On a brighter side, Adair Turner pokes fun at the “Authoritative experts such as the IMF [who] explained how increased securitisation and trading activity made the financial system more efficient and less risky.”[6] It was as if “options” and hedges can get rid of risk entirely, not shift them onto Wall Street victims such as the naïve German Landesbanks.

The aim of this week’s disinformation campaign is to prevent popular anger advocating what was done in classical antiquity. The ancients fought civil wars for land redistribution and debt cancellation. Today the demand should be for mortgage writedowns to bring their carrying charges in line with reasonable rent charges, limited to the former normal 25 percent of homeowner income – while rolling back the FICA wage withholding and allied taxes levied to bail out the creditor class.

An Athenian antecedent to today’s financial takeover

It is an old story, with a striking parallel in classical Athens. After losing the Peloponnesian war to oligarchic Sparta in 404, a Pinochet-style military junta – the Thirty Tyrants – was installed. During its eight months of terror its members killed a reported 1,500 democratic advocates whose land and other property they grabbed. Advocates of democracy took refuge in Thrace and other neighboring regions.

After the exiled democratic leaders reconquered Athens, they sought to restore harmony, going so far as to pay off all the debts that the oligarchic junta had run up to Sparta. To top matters, the subsequent 4thcentury obliged Athenian jurors and indeed, mayors in some Greek cities to swear an oath: “I will not allow private debts (chreon idiom) to be cancelled, nor lands nor houses of Athenian citizens to be redistributed.”[7]

If no such pledge is needed today by public officials, it is because the financial administrators at the Treasury, Federal Reserve and other regulatory agencies already have shown themselves to be so tunnel-visioned from graduate school through their employment history that they can be trusted to find debt writedowns as unthinkable as enforcing laws against criminal financial fraud to punish individuals rather than their institutions. Academia joins in the deception that financial engineering can sustain a geometric growth in debt ad infinitumwithout imposing austerity.The bailout aftermath has demonstrated that corporations are not really  “persons” if they cannot be given jail time.

The key financial principle is that this self-expansion of interest-bearing debt grows to absorb more and more of the economic surplus. The solution therefore must involve wiping out the excess debt – and savings that have been badly lent. That is what crashes are supposed to do. It was not done in 2008. That is why the status quo was not restored. A vast giveaway to the financial elites occurred, setting the rest of the economy on a road to debt peonage.

It would have been nice to have read an article by Sheila Bair explaining the procedures that the FDIC had in place, ready to take over insolvent Citigroup and other banks in similar straits, saving all the insured depositors by taking over these institutions. No doubt as public institutions they would not have indulged in junk mortgages or, for that matter, takeover loans.

It would have been nice to hear from Hank Paulson and perhaps Barney Frank on how they tried to get incoming President Obama to write down bad mortgages whose carrying charges were as far above the debtor’s ability to pay as they were above the going rental value for similar properties. It would have been nice to hear a mea culpa from Mr. Obama apologizing for representing the interest of his campaign donors by standing between them and his voters with pitchforks. Even an article by Tim Geithner or Eric Holder on how lucky they felt at getting such high-paying jobs after they left office from the financial sector they had overseen and “regulated.”

What is needed now is to follow up the primary policy perception that today’s financially dysfunctional economy cannot be saved without a bank crash. That means rolling back the enormous gains that the FIRE sector has made since 1980 at the expense of the “real” economy.  Banks have ceased to be an “engine of growth.” They are not making loans to create new means of production. They are lending to asset strippers, not asset creators. It is not hard to show this statistically. (I drafted an attempt in Killing the Host, and am now working with Democracy Collaborative to prepare a larger study.)

At stake is whether the U.S. and Western European economies are going to end up looking like those of Greece, Latvia and Argentina – or imperial Rome for that matter. Neoliberals applaud today’s victorious finance capitalism as the “end of history.” One such end has already occurred once, at the close of Roman antiquity. It is remembered as the Dark Age. Progress stopped as the creditor and landowning class lorded it over the rest of society. Trade survived only among the lords at the top of the economic pyramid. Today’s “End of History” dream threatens to unfold along similar lines. It is all about relative power of the One Percent.

Notes.

[1] Paul Krugman, “Days of Fear, Years of Obstruction,” The New York Times, September 14, 2018.

[2] John Cassidy, A World of Woes: A global take on a decade of financial crisis,” The New Yorker, September 17, 2018.

[3] “Ben Bernanke pins blame for Great Recession on bank panic,” Financial Times, September 13, 2018.

[4] Ellen Brown recently published a review, Central Banks Have Gone Rogue, Putting Us All at Risk.” Public Banking Institute and Truthdig, September 13, 2018.

[5] Glenn Hubbard, “Bailouts Shouldn’t Be Only for Banks”Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2018. To be sure, Hubbard acknowledges that Republicans had agreed to but incoming President Obama nixed: “The government should have directed a mass refinancing of mortgages for primary homes in which the borrower was current in payments.”

[6] Adair Turner, “Banks are safer but debt remains a danger,” Financial Times, September 12, 2018.

[7] Demosthenes Against Timocrates (xxiv.149).

Elon Musk Sued By SEC, Tesla Stock Tumbles: Here Is The Full Complaint

In the aftermath of the “funding secured” tweet, the investing public had been split into two camps: the first, and more cynical, said that the SEC would never pursue what was a clear case of securities fraud and stock manipulation – after all, Elon Musk is “too big” of a visionary to pursue; and then there were the die hard Tesla skeptics who believed that no matter what, Musk would – or should – be punished.

Moments ago the latter group won, when the SEC filed a lawsuit against Elon Musk in New York Southern District court.

Here are the highlights:

This case involves a series of false and misleading statements made by Elon Musk, the Chief Executive Officer of Tesla, Inc. (“Tesla”), on August 7, 2018, regarding taking Tesla, a publicly traded company, private. Musk’s statements, disseminated via Twitter, falsely indicated that, should he so choose, it was virtually certain that he could take Tesla private at a purchase price that reflected a substantial premium over Tesla stock’s then-current share price, that funding for this multi-billion dollar transaction had been secured, and that the only contingency was a shareholder vote. In truth and in fact, Musk had not even discussed, much less confirmed, key deal terms, including price, with any potential funding source.

Musk knew or was reckless in not knowing that each of these statements was false and/or misleading because he did not have an adequate basis in fact for his assertions. When he made these statements, Musk knew that he had never discussed a going-private transaction at $420 per share with any potential funding source, had done nothing to investigate whether it would be possible for all current investors to remain with Tesla as a private company via a “special purpose fund,” and had not confirmed support of Tesla’s investors for a potential going-private transaction. He also knew that he had not satisfied numerous additional contingencies, the resolution of which was highly uncertain, when he unequivocally declared, “Only reason why this is not certain is that it’s contingent on a shareholder vote.” Musk’s public statements and omissions created the misleading impression that taking Tesla private was subject only to Musk choosing to do so and a shareholder vote.

….

Musk’s false and misleading public statements and omissions caused significant confusion and disruption in the market for Tesla’s stock and resulting harm to investors

….

By engaging in the conduct alleged in this Complaint, Musk violated, and unless restrained and enjoined will violate again, Section 10(b) of the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (“Exchange Act”) [15 U.S.C. § 78j(b)] and Rule 10b-5 [17 C.F.R. § 240.10b-5] thereunder

The stock tumbled 5% on the news:

We have a feeling Musk won’t be tweeting much going forward:

US Traffic Volume Declines For The First Time In 4 Years

Trump’s fears that rising gasoline prices will impact consumer behavior have come true.

The volume of traffic on U.S. highways has stopped growing, alongside gasoline consumption, as rising prices are starting to curb driving behavior, a new analysis by Reuters’ energy analyst John Kemp shows. Traffic volumes in July were 0.3% lower than a year earlier, after seasonal adjustments, the latest Federal Highway Administration data showed.

Traffic growth has been negative in two months so far this year, the first readings sub-zero prints since the start of 2014.  Meanwhile volumes were up by less than 0.3% in the three months from May to July compared with the same period a year earlier, down from annual growth of 2-3% throughout 2015 and 2016.

It will come as no surprise that there has been a correlation between traffic volumes and the cyclical rise and fall in oil and gasoline prices since at least the early 1990s. While traffic volume dropped in 2013 and again in mid-2014, the sharp decline in oil prices between the middle of 2014 and early 2016 provided a tremendous boost to vehicle use.

But as oil prices have recovered over the last 30 months, that stimulus has faded and traffic growth has once again slowed to a crawl, and in fact turned negative. The reason: the average cost of gasoline purchased by U.S. motorists surged by more than 55% between February 2016 and September 2018.

Separate data on gasoline consumption showed a similar plateau as higher prices encourage motorists to limit fuel use. Gasoline consumption rose by just 18,000 barrels per day in the first half of 2018 compared with the same period a year earlier, despite strong economic growth and substantial job creation.

Looking ahead, and assuming no material change in gas prices, the U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts consumption will decline by around 10,000 barrels per day this year.

Meanwhile, if oil prices continue to rise over the next 12 months, as many traders and hedge funds expect, traffic volumes and gasoline consumption are both likely to turn increasingly negative.

But what is most worrisome, is that the flattening of U.S. gasoline consumption resembles the run up to oil price peaks in 2007/08, 2011/12 and the first half of 2014.

And while it would be difficult to extrapolate broad economic conclusions from these observations, John Kemp points out that in each case, the flattening of U.S. gasoline consumption preceded a sharp downward move in international oil prices after the market overheated.

Considering that many analysts and trader are increasingly open to the idea of a $100/barrel superspike in prices if the bulk of Iran oil exports are taken off the market, a sudden spike in gasoline prices may be just the straw that breaks the camel’s back of the US consumer, who while extremely confident, is increasingly forced to pick between filling up the car and spending money on other discretionary, or staple, purchases.

Hospital ER reports 160 percent spike in visits involving e-scooters

Published 

As injured electric scooter riders pour into emergency departments around the country, doctors have scrambled to document a trend that many view as a growing public safety crisis.

A detailed statistical portrait of that crisis won’t be available for another year, emergency physicians say, but some early samples are beginning to emerge.

In Salt Lake City — where dockless e-scooters have been on city streets since June — one hospital says it has seen a 161 percent increase in the number of visits involving scooters after comparing its latest statistics with the same three-month period a year earlier.

Between June and September 2017, physicians at University of Utah Health’s emergency room treated eight patients injured by scooters, though each of those were likely people’s personal devices and not the electric fleet vehicles owned by companies like Bird, Lime and Skip.

During the same period this year, that number had climbed to 21, according to Dr. Troy Madsen, who practices at the University of Utah Health’s Emergency Department.

“Most of the patients with these injuries specifically reported that they were riding an e-scooter or a rental scooter,” Madsen said, noting that they ranged in age from 20 to 50 years old and were often injured attempting to catch themselves in a fall. “Interestingly, more than 80 percent of the injuries this year happened between Aug. 15 and Sept. 15, which would correspond with the increasing popularity and availability of the e-scooters.”

“It’s worth noting that these were only emergency department visits,” he added. “Patients with more minor injuries may have gone to an urgent care, and the patients we saw were likely those with more significant injuries who required a higher level of care in an emergency department.”

The hospital reported that nearly half of this year’s injuries were fractures and dislocations of ankles, wrists, elbows and shoulders, as well as several cases of sprains and lacerations. Emergency physicians also treated several head injuries, and multiple patients told doctors they were intoxicated when they were injured and not wearing a helmet.

Emergency physicians noted that their statistics may represent a fraction of Salt Lake City’s e-scooter injuries. University of Utah Health’s Utah emergency department is “fairly close to the downtown area,” where most rentable scooters are located, but there are other emergency departments even closer, Madsen said.

Emergency physicians in a dozen cities around the country have told The Post that they are seeing a spike in scooter accidents. In seven cities, those physicians are regularly seeing “severe” injuries – including head traumas – that were sustained from scooters malfunctioning or flipping over on uneven surfaces as well as riders being hit by cars or colliding with pedestrians.

Some safety experts have raised questions about the gig economy workforce companies like Bird rely on to maintain their growing fleets. The company has posted ads on Craigslist seeking mechanics that say experience is not necessary in addition to providing training for new hires via YouTube videos. Videos posted online show Bird scooters with accelerators stuck in place and with wobbly handlebars and loose brakes.

“I just signed up to be a Bird mechanic,” one mechanic says on camera. “I realized there are a very large amount of scooters with problems.”

Last week, The Dallas County Medical Examiner’s Office revealed that a 24-year-old man who fell of a Lime scooter on his way home for work this month was killed by blunt force injuries to the head.

Hours after Jacoby Stoneking’s death has been ruled an accident — likely making him the first person to due riding one of the electric mobility devices sweeping the nation in recent months — a 20-year-old man in Washington, D.C., was struck by an SUV while riding a Lime scooter on Friday. Firefighters worked to free Carlos Sanchez-Martin, of Silver Spring, Maryland, was dragged about 20 yards and pinned under the silver SUV.

Police said Sanchez-Martin later died after being transported to a local hospital.

Scooter companies have repeatedly maintained that safety is a top priority. They say their apps and labels on the scooters contain basic safety information, as well as training instructions. Bird requires users to upload a driver’s license and confirm they’re at least 18 years old.

Lime, Bird and Skip have programs that give helmets to riders who request them, and Lime notes that riders must go through an “in-app tutorial” on helmet safety to unlock one of the company’s scooters for the first time.

“Helmets are recommended for use of the e-scooters, and I would reinforce this after seeing some of the cases of head injuries that we’ve treated in our emergency department,” Madsen said.

Repo 105

Branded a Villain, Lehman’s Dick Fuld Chases Redemption

Wall Street veteran, pilloried over bank’s collapse, has said his firm didn’t have to die. A new book agrees. – Wall Street Journal (September 6, 2018)

Every time Dick Fuld’s publicists succeed in getting a “redemption story” published in the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, I’m going to write an Epsilon Theory brief about Repo 105, the fraudulent scheme that Lehman Brothers ran for years to hide its deteriorating financial condition from investors and regulators alike.

Here’s what makes the world go round: you can borrow more money than you have in liquid assets.

That’s what a mortgage or an auto loan or a college loan is. You don’t have enough cash to buy that house or car or college tuition all at once, so the bank gives you the cash to make the purchase. But by the same token, banks are by necessity lending out more cash than they actually have deposited with them. This is both the gasoline and the oil for the modern economic engine, and if you and I didn’t go into debt and the banks didn’t lend more than they have in deposits, the engine would seize up and our entire economy would come to a screeching halt. This is, in fact, what causes Depressions.

But in exactly the same way that you or I might be in trouble if we borrowed a lot more money than we have stashed away in a bank account somewhere, a bank might be in trouble if it lends out a lot more money than its underlying customer deposits or invested capital or otherwise loan-supporting reserves warrant. And in exactly the same way that the banks review our financial records before giving us a loan to make sure we’re not borrowing too much money for the bank’s standards, so does the government review a bank’s financial records to make sure they’re not lending too much money for the government’s standards. And by government standards I mean laws.

Repo 105 was a multiyear scheme by Lehman to defraud the government and its own investors by falsifying the actual amount of loans it had on the books, making Lehman look safer than it actually was.

It worked like this. A few days before the end of the calendar quarter, Lehman would “sell” billions of dollars worth of loans to another bank. I put “sell” in quotation marks, because Lehman ALSO had an agreement with these other banks to buy the loans back a few days after the quarter ended for the same price as they were sold, plus enough money to cover whatever the going interest rate was on that cash for the few days it was in Lehman’s hands. This is what’s called a repurchase agreement, or repo, hence the name Repo 105 (the 105 refers to the 5% overcollateralization that counterparty banks required to lend the cash to Lehman even for a few days – theyknew Lehman was in trouble). Since financial reporting happens at the end of the quarter, Lehman’s books would look like they had more cash and fewer loans than they actually did.

Surely, you say, no law firm would bless this blatant attempt to cook the books? And I say, don’t call me Shirley. I say, well … no US law firm would bless this, so naturally Lehman found a UK firm, Linklaters, to say that this was, in fact, technically a “true sale”. Even then, to pull this off Lehman had to run Repo 105 through their offshore subsidiaries, not through their US-chartered entities. It was really expensive for Lehman to run Repo 105. But also entirely necessary, or else the entire house of cards that WAS Lehman would have collapsed well before September, 2008.

What about Lehman’s auditors, you ask, surely no auditor would go along with this scheme? Again … Shirley. Again, Lehman found that Ernst & Young would indeed sign off on the program, in exchange, of course, for a sharp increase in fees. The state of New York filed civil fraud charges against Ernst & Young over Repo 105 in December, 2010. I believe they paid a (small) fine.

Dick Fuld claims that he knew nothing about the Repo 105 program. The only possible answer to this, and here I’ll apologize in advance for my language, but it’s really the best possible word – bullshit. Did I mention that Repo 105 was a really expensive program to run? Did I mention that Dick Fuld’s nickname was The Gorilla, that he was infamous for controlling everyone and everything at Lehman? Did I mention that Repo 105 was concealing existential risk for Lehman?

If you or I did what Lehman did with Repo 105, we would be charged and convicted of bank fraud. Happens all the time. It’s pretty much what Paul Manafort just got convicted on. This is a crime. It is not a minor crime. It’s an absolute slam-dunk case for any prosecutor in any jurisdiction in the country. And yet, with the exception of the civil fraud charges brought against Ernst & Young, no other charges – civil or criminal – were ever filed by the SEC or the Justice Department in connection with Repo 105. 

When was I radicalized?

When Dick Fuld walked away scot-free from the wreckage of Lehman after getting half a billion dollars in cash comp and stock sales during his tenure.

Never forget.

Bankrupt Philadelphia Plunders Its Property-Owners For Cash

Like a lot of major cities in the United States, Philadelphia is in pretty rough financial condition.

One of the city’s biggest problems is its woefully underfunded public pension, which has a multi-billion dollar funding gap.

In 2001, Philadelphia’s pension fund was still in decent shape with a funding level of 77%, meaning that it had sufficient assets to meet 77% of its long-term obligations.

By 2017 the funding level had dropped to less than 50%.

Part of this is just blatant mismanagement; while most of the market soared in 2016, for example, Philadelphia’s pension fund lost about $150 million on its investments, roughly 3.17% of its capital.

It’s interesting that, along the way, the city has actually tried to fix the problem. Between 2001 and 2017, the amount of money that the city contributed to the pension fund actually increased by 230%.

Yet despite increasing contributions to the fund, the fund’s solvency level keeps shrinking.

Mayor Jim Kenny summed up the grim situation in his budget address last year:

The City’s annual pension contribution has grown by over 230 percent since fiscal year 2001. . . These increasing pension costs have caused us to cut important public services while the pension fund’s health has grown weaker. In fact, our pension fund has actually dropped from 77 percent funded to less than 50 percent funded during the same time our contributions were so rapidly increasing.

So, desperate for revenue, the local government has been relying on an old tactic to get their hands on every spare penny they can.

The city of Philadelphia owns the local gas company – Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW). It’s essentially a local government monopoly.

And over the last few years, PGW developed an automated system to comb its billing records, find delinquent accounts, and file a lien on those properties.

If you’re not familiar with real estate law, a ‘lien’ is a formally-registered security interest in which your property serves as collateral for a debt.

When you borrow money from the bank to buy a home, for example, the bank registers a lien over your home for the value of the mortgage.

The lien prevents you from selling the home until you satisfy the debt. It also means that if you don’t pay the debt, the lienholder (the bank, or the gas company) can seize the property.

In PGW’s case, the gas company is filing liens over people’s properties due to unpaid gas bills for as little as $300.

There is essentially zero due process here.

It’s not like the gas company has to go in front a jury and prove that there’s an unsatisfied debt.

They just have their automated system file some papers, and, poof, the lien is registered.

So someone could have their home encumbered for a $300 late bill that ended up being an administrative error.

More importantly, it’s curious why the gas company is filing a lien against the property… because it’s entirely possible that the delinquent customer isn’t even the property owner.

Let’s say you’re a landlord and renting out your investment property to a tenant… and the tenant doesn’t pay his gas bill: PGW will put a lien on your property, even though it’s not your bill.

Even worse, you wouldn’t even know about it, because PGW would be sending the late notices to the tenant… not to you.

At that point it turns into a total bureaucratic nightmare.

If you’re lucky enough to even find out about it, you call PGW to try and get the lien removed.

But (according to court documents), PGW tells angry landlords that they have no control over the lien process, and tell people to file a complaint with the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

But then the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission tells you that they have no jurisdiction over liens in Philadelphia, and that you should talk to the utility company.

Classic government bureaucracy. You just get bounced around between various departments and nothing ever gets resolved from a problem that you didn’t even create.

Well, a bunch of landlords finally had enough of this nonsense, so they got together and sued the city in federal court.

It seemed like a slam dunk case. Why should property owners be held liable for the actions of their tenants?

If tenants don’t pay for their own gas, the tenants should be held responsible… not the property owners.

Common sense, right?

Wrong. The landlords lost the case.

Two weeks ago the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that the City of Philadelphia was well within its rights to hold property owners responsible… and to file a lien on the property without even notifying the owner to begin with.

This is a pretty strong reminder of how low governments will sink when they become financially desperate.

CO2 Emissions Hit 67-Year Low, As Rest-Of-World Rises

We suspect you won’t hear too much about this from the liberal mainstream media, or the environmental movement, or even Al Gore – but, according to the  latest energy report from The Energy Information Administration (EIA)under President Trump, per-capita carbon dioxide emissions are now the lowest they’ve been in nearly seven decades.

Even more interesting is the fact that US carbon emissions dropped while emissions from energy consumption for the rest of the world increased by 1.6%, after little or no growth for the three years from 2014 to 2016.

The U.S. emitted 15.6 metric tons of CO2 per person in 1950. After rising for decades, it’s declined in recent years to 15.8 metric tons per person in 2017, the lowest measured levels in 67 years.

And as The Daily Caller reports, in the last year, U.S. emissions fell more than 0.5% while European emissions rose 2.5% (and Chinese emissions rose 1.6% along with Hong Kong’s 7.0% surge), according to BP world energy data – an ironic turn of events given Europe’s shaming of Trump for leaving the Paris climate accord.

One Bank’s Striking Admission: The Fringe Is Now In Charge Because Of Central Banks

Whereas several years ago, forecasting that central banks would unleash wars, bloodshed and social conflict was considered so preposterous, it was relegated to the domain of fringe, tinfoil hat blogs, it has gradually been “normalized” as even the mainstream realized just how clueless the world’s central planning elite truly are, and this scandalous topic has since migrated to the permitted list of items for discussion by respected, establishment institutions including banks and wealth managers, such as the UK’s Clarmond Wealth.

Last October, in a market comment note by Clarmond’s Chris Andrew and Mustafa Zaidi, the duo warned, in no uncertain terms, that “central banks are currently furnishing the excess credit that, in the past, has been followed by an orgy of blood.”

In today’s note, instead of looking at the inevitable militant outcome of failed central bank policies, they instead take on the connection between monetary policy and the rise of the “fringe” in politics, buoyed by a resentful electorate, which unable to partake in the “rise in asset prices, be they in equities, fixed income, or real estate” and where the “continued stagnation in income has only highlighted the disparity between income and asset growth”, meant that the “resentment has simmered in the electorates of the developed world.

The cost of these policies, like in Takahashi’s time, is being paid years after the event. QE and deficit spending has brought unexpected and unsavoury guests to the political dinner table, invited there by the angry electorates. In 2012 we did not know who they would be in 2012, now we do and the guest list is nearly complete.

This list of actors spawned by central bank actions include those on the edge of acceptability: “the kind of characters who have provided diversionary entertainment for decades. These are now the main guests, sitting on both the Left and Right sides of our table: Trump & Bernie, Jacob & Jeremy, the Europeans leaders of AfD, Podemos & LegaNord.”

These couplings are the costs of QE’s best intentions. These new guests bring with them their outlandish ideas to our desperate mainstream, that is struggling to find a vision of the future.

In short, “the fringe is now in charge because the centre is bankrupt of ideas.

Below we repost the full Clarmond note which just a few short years ago would have prompted scandalous outrage across the “very serious people’s” world of finance, and now is more or less considered common knowledge as to how “this” all ends, and hardly generates any reaction.

* * *

The Best Of Intentions (link)

Dear Mustafa,

In preparing for my annual pilgrimage to the wifi-free valleys of the Cevennes National Park in France I have been reviewing our old pieces to remind me on what we were thinking in the past. One piece written in November 2012 jumped out at me, we called it ’Resurrecting Reflation’.

In it we introduced Takahashi Korekiyo, finance minister of 1930s Japan. He combined massive Quantitative Easing with deficit spending to propel Japan out of its slump. The result…the equity markets tripled, employment soared, and inflation decreased. Sadly for Korekiyo he paid for this easy money with his life. The loose money went into the military and when he tried to turn this tap off the group of army thugs visited him and cut him to pieces.

In 2012 it was only Ben Bernanke who was engaging in serious QE and we suggested that we should not be surprised to experience a similar outcome. Well Draghi, Kuroda and Carney soon joined the party and what a ride we have had.

We have enjoyed a significant rise in asset prices, be they in equities, fixed income, or real estate. However, this has coincided with continued stagnation in income – and this rise in asset prices has only highlighted the disparity between income and asset growth. So resentment has simmered in the electorates of the developed world.

The cost of these policies, like in Takahashi’s time, is being paid years after the event. QE and deficit spending has brought unexpected and unsavoury guests to the political dinner table, invited there by the angry electorates. In 2012 we did not know who they would be in 2012, now we do and the guest list is nearly complete.

Our guest include those on the edge of acceptability; the kind of characters who have provided diversionary entertainment for decades. These are now the main guests, sitting on both the Left and Right sides of our table: Trump & Bernie, Jacob & Jeremy, the Europeans leaders of AfD, Podemos & LegaNord. These couplings are the costs of QE’s best intentions. These new guests bring with them their outlandish ideas to our desperate mainstream, that is struggling to find a vision of the future. The fringe is now in charge because the centre is bankrupt of ideas.

If we fast-forward another 5 years from now I only see this guest list expanding, all the while the central bankers silently attempt to skulk away. In the past both parties eventually collided, with the new guests prevailing.