The “It Almost Worked” Billion Dollar Bank Job

This is a fascinating story in The New York Times of how some clever hackers/thieves were almost able to infiltrate the global banking system and get away with stealing nearly a billion dollars through a Bangladeshi bank:

Until about a decade ago, Bangladesh’s central bank was stuck in the analog age: Staff members sent international payment instructions via a teleprinter, an electromechanical typewriter that sent and received messages over standard phone lines and other channels. But since a new bank governor took over in 2009, the institution had gone digital. Its international transfer orders are now dispatched via Swift, the Brussels-based electronic network used by 11,000 financial institutions in more than 200 countries and territories. Inside a 12-foot-by-8-foot glass-walled chamber, under the scrutiny of closed-circuit security cameras, staff members log into Swift and dispatch the payment orders with encrypted communications. With a few keystrokes, a complex process is set in motion that sends millions of dollars zipping across continents.

On the sophistication of the Bangladeshi job:

The hackers’ approach was masterly in its foresight and complexity, and the malware they used, or variations of it, later turned up in several of the other bank breaches. The intruders most likely entered the bank’s computer network through a single vulnerable terminal, using a contaminated website or email attachment, and planted malware that gave them total control, even a view of the screens they were manipulating. There, hiding in plain sight, they waited for months to gain an understanding of the bank’s business operations. They harvested employee passwords and worked their way to the most tightly guarded corner of the network: the Swift server. Despite Swift’s warnings, the bank had not segregated its Swift server from the rest of the computer network. 

The major reason why the funds didn’t get completely transferred (“only” $81million of the nearly one billion dollars went through) was because the word “Jupiter” was flagged as a suspicious entity in one of the transfers, a huge coincidence.

Yet when it came to the Bangladesh heist, transferring the cash was only the first part of the scheme. It was one thing to use malicious software to tunnel into the bank’s Swift network and send out dozens of phony transfer orders to banks around the world. It was quite another to turn that digital cash into real money and then make it disappear.

Definitely worth reading the entire story. The illustrations accompanying the piece are also great.

Gary Shteyngart Goes Deep on Hedge Funds and Bitcoin

I really enjoy all that Gary Shteyngart publishes (see here and here, for example) . In his latest year-long project, Shteyngart has been researching finance, bitcoin, and has written an interesting article about Michael Novogratz for The New Yorker:

I like how Shteyngart brings his own life events into the story:

As a hungry, insecure kid growing up in eastern Queens, I remember watching the movie “Wall Street” and fantasizing about how I would look in suspenders and a contrasting collar. The men on the big screen did not have to understand themselves; the money made them understood. Although my greed had been expunged at Oberlin, and the financial crisis of 2007-08 had left me with a more or less permanent view of finance as an industry built on fraud, I found it hard to dislike some of my new acquaintances. The more intellectually vibrant ones came with backgrounds in advanced math and physics; they approached their trades like a puzzle, albeit one they were increasingly unable to solve. Others seemed to be flirting with the edges of sociopathy, or, at least, an inability to pass “Blade Runner” ’s Voight-Kampff empathy test.

Reflecting on the competitive nature from high school days:

At Stuyvesant High School, a competitive math-and-science school in Manhattan with a high proportion of first-generation immigrants, my classmates and I would get up every morning to wage battle over a hundredth of a percentile on our grade-point average; my new friends were fighting over so many basis points on their Bloomberg monitors. When we failed, we failed in front of our families, our ancestors, our future and our past.

Novogratz on Bitcoin:

He doesn’t think that cryptocurrencies will replace the dollar or the yen, but he believes that they will be a boon to countries in the developing world, where people don’t have trust in their fiat currencies, and that blockchain can revolutionize the way information is logged and shared and, in our age of data breaches, protected. “I’m good at selling the dream,” he said. “I can get onstage and get people to start saying ‘Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’ ”

Perhaps the most cogent piece of wisdom comes near the end of the piece:

After six years of exploring finance, I concluded that, despite the expertise and the intelligence on display, nobody really knows anything. 

Worth the read if you enjoy Shteyngart’s writing and/or are curious about the evolution of bitcoin and what some hedge fund managers are trying to do in the space.

On Bad Investments and Marathons

This week, The New York Times launched Upshot , described as “a plainspoken guide to the news” and in essence, similar to two other explanatory new sites that have recently launched (Vox.com and FiveThirtyEight.com). My favorite piece so far on Upshot is Justin Wolfers’s “What Good Marathons and Bad Investments Have in Common” (because it combines two of my interests: finance and running):

In the usual analysis, economists suggest it’s worth putting in effort as long as the marginal benefit from doing so exceeds the corresponding marginal cost of that effort. The fact that so many people think it worth the effort to run a 2:59 or 3:59 marathon rather than a 3:01 or 4:01 suggests that achieving goals brings a psychological benefit, and that missing them yields the costly sting of failure.

But in other domains, this discontinuity between meeting a goal and being forced to confront a loss can lead to bad economic decisions. Because losses are psychologically painful, we sometimes strain too hard to avoid them.

For instance, when you sell your house, your goal may be to get at least what you paid for it. But this simple goal has led to disastrous decisions for those who bought homes in Florida or Nevada during the housing bubble. Too many homeowners set their selling prices with an eye on recouping past investments rather than on current market conditions, and as a result, their homes didn’t sell, deepening their financial distress.

Well worth the read in entirety.

The 2014 Annual Shareholder Letter from Warren Buffett

Fortune Magazine has a sneak peek into the annual shareholder letter than Warren Buffett will soon share with the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders. He shares two personal stories from his life and how the investment decisions have paid off over time. He echoes his wisdom in the following points:

  • You don’t need to be an expert in order to achieve satisfactory investment returns. But if you aren’t, you must recognize your limitations and follow a course certain to work reasonably well. Keep things simple and don’t swing for the fences. When promised quick profits, respond with a quick “no.”

  • Focus on the future productivity of the asset you are considering. If you don’t feel comfortable making a rough estimate of the asset’s future earnings, just forget it and move on. No one has the ability to evaluate every investment possibility. But omniscience isn’t necessary; you only need to understand the actions you undertake.

  • If you instead focus on the prospective price change of a contemplated purchase, you are speculating. There is nothing improper about that. I know, however, that I am unable to speculate successfully, and I am skeptical of those who claim sustained success at doing so. Half of all coin-flippers will win their first toss; none of those winners has an expectation of profit if he continues to play the game. And the fact that a given asset has appreciated in the recent past is never a reason to buy it.

  • With my two small investments, I thought only of what the properties would produce and cared not at all about their daily valuations. Games are won by players who focus on the playing field — not by those whose eyes are glued to the scoreboard. If you can enjoy Saturdays and Sundays without looking at stock prices, give it a try on weekdays.

  • Forming macro opinions or listening to the macro or market predictions of others is a waste of time. Indeed, it is dangerous because it may blur your vision of the facts that are truly important. (When I hear TV commentators glibly opine on what the market will do next, I am reminded of Mickey Mantle’s scathing comment: “You don’t know how easy this game is until you get into that broadcasting booth.”)

Read the rest here.

Marc Andreessen on the Future of Bitcoin

Marc Andreessen, writing in The New York Times, has a very good piece titled “Why Bitcoin Matters” explaining Bitcoin and its potential. You have to remember that Mr. Andreessen has skin in the game (to quote Nassim Taleb), because he will do very well if Bitcoin succeeds. However, it is still worth the read.

What’s the future of Bitcoin?

Bitcoin is a classic network effect, a positive feedback loop. The more people who use Bitcoin, the more valuable Bitcoin is for everyone who uses it, and the higher the incentive for the next user to start using the technology. Bitcoin shares this network effect property with the telephone system, the web, and popular Internet services like eBay and Facebook.

In fact, Bitcoin is a four-sided network effect. There are four constituencies that participate in expanding the value of Bitcoin as a consequence of their own self-interested participation. Those constituencies are (1) consumers who pay with Bitcoin, (2) merchants who accept Bitcoin, (3) “miners” who run the computers that process and validate all the transactions and enable the distributed trust network to exist, and (4) developers and entrepreneurs who are building new products and services with and on top of Bitcoin.

All four sides of the network effect are playing a valuable part in expanding the value of the overall system, but the fourth is particularly important.

All over Silicon Valley and around the world, many thousands of programmers are using Bitcoin as a building block for a kaleidoscope of new product and service ideas that were not possible before. And at our venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz, we are seeing a rapidly increasing number of outstanding entrepreneurs – not a few with highly respected track records in the financial industry – building companies on top of Bitcoin.

For this reason alone, new challengers to Bitcoin face a hard uphill battle. If something is to displace Bitcoin now, it will have to have sizable improvements and it will have to happen quickly. Otherwise, this network effect will carry Bitcoin to dominance.

One immediately obvious and enormous area for Bitcoin-based innovation is international remittance. Every day, hundreds of millions of low-income people go to work in hard jobs in foreign countries to make money to send back to their families in their home countries – over $400 billion in total annually, according to the World Bank. Every day, banks and payment companies extract mind-boggling fees, up to 10 percent and sometimes even higher, to send this money.

Switching to Bitcoin, which charges no or very low fees, for these remittance payments will therefore raise the quality of life of migrant workers and their families significantly. In fact, it is hard to think of any one thing that would have a faster and more positive effect on so many people in the world’s poorest countries.

Moreover, Bitcoin generally can be a powerful force to bring a much larger number of people around the world into the modern economic system. Only about 20 countries around the world have what we would consider to be fully modern banking and payment systems; the other roughly 175 have a long way to go. As a result, many people in many countries are excluded from products and services that we in the West take for granted. Even Netflix, a completely virtual service, is only available in about 40 countries. Bitcoin, as a global payment system anyone can use from anywhere at any time, can be a powerful catalyst to extend the benefits of the modern economic system to virtually everyone on the planet.

And even here in the United States, a long-recognized problem is the extremely high fees that the “unbanked” — people without conventional bank accounts – pay for even basic financial services. Bitcoin can be used to go straight at that problem, by making it easy to offer extremely low-fee services to people outside of the traditional financial system.

A third fascinating use case for Bitcoin is micropayments, or ultrasmall payments. Micropayments have never been feasible, despite 20 years of attempts, because it is not cost effective to run small payments (think $1 and below, down to pennies or fractions of a penny) through the existing credit/debit and banking systems. The fee structure of those systems makes that nonviable.

All of a sudden, with Bitcoin, that’s trivially easy. Bitcoins have the nifty property of infinite divisibility: currently down to eight decimal places after the dot, but more in the future. So you can specify an arbitrarily small amount of money, like a thousandth of a penny, and send it to anyone in the world for free or near-free.

I think this is the most interesting/compelling use of Bitcoin to me:

Think about content monetization, for example. One reason media businesses such as newspapers struggle to charge for content is because they need to charge either all (pay the entire subscription fee for all the content) or nothing (which then results in all those terrible banner ads everywhere on the web). All of a sudden, with Bitcoin, there is an economically viable way to charge arbitrarily small amounts of money per article, or per section, or per hour, or per video play, or per archive access, or per news alert.

For example, I don’t want to pay the monthly subscription to The New York Times, because while I read a lot on the site, I don’t see the benefit of paying for a subscription when I can get to the articles for free via social media channels. But if the cost was something small, say $0.05 per article, then I would be more inclined to browse from the homepage directly.

The Human Element in Quantification

I enjoyed Felix Salmon’s piece in Wired titled “Why Quants Don’t Know Everything.” The premise of the piece is that while what quants do is important, the human element cannot be ignored.

The reason the quants win is that they’re almost always right—at least at first. They find numerical patterns or invent ingenious algorithms that increase profits or solve problems in ways that no amount of subjective experience can match. But what happens after the quants win is not always the data-driven paradise that they and their boosters expected. The more a field is run by a system, the more that system creates incentives for everyone (employees, customers, competitors) to change their behavior in perverse ways—providing more of whatever the system is designed to measure and produce, whether that actually creates any value or not. It’s a problem that can’t be solved until the quants learn a little bit from the old-fashioned ways of thinking they’ve displaced.

Felix discusses the four stages in the rise of the quants: 1) pre-disruption, 2) disruption, 3) overshoot, and 4) synthesis, described below:

It’s increasingly clear that for smart organizations, living by numbers alone simply won’t work. That’s why they arrive at stage four: synthesis—the practice of marrying quantitative insights with old-fashioned subjective experience. Nate Silver himself has written thoughtfully about examples of this in his book, The Signal and the Noise. He cites baseball, which in the post-Moneyball era adopted a “fusion approach” that leans on both statistics and scouting. Silver credits it with delivering the Boston Red Sox’s first World Series title in 86 years. Or consider weather forecasting: The National Weather Service employs meteorologists who, understanding the dynamics of weather systems, can improve forecasts by as much as 25 percent compared with computers alone. A similar synthesis holds in eco­nomic forecasting: Adding human judgment to statistical methods makes results roughly 15 percent more accurate. And it’s even true in chess: While the best computers can now easily beat the best humans, they can in turn be beaten by humans aided by computers.

Very interesting throughout, and highly recommended.

Why Not to Invest in Futures Funds

If you or your family has investments in so-called futures funds, you might want to pull out your money out of them immediately. David Evans, writing in Bloomberg, has a big piece on how these futures funds have been a complete cash drain on those who unwisely chose to invest in them. While traditional hedge funds charge a 2 and 20 fee (2% fees, 20% of profits), these futures funds charge as as much as 9 percent in total fees each year (which is astronomical):

Investors who kept their money in Spectrum Technical for that decade, however, reaped none of those returns — not one penny. Every bit of those profits — and more — was consumed by $498.7 million in commissions, expenses and fees paid to fund managers and Morgan Stanley.

After all of that was deducted, investors ended up losing $8.3 million over 10 years. Had those Morgan Stanley investors placed their money instead in a low-fee index mutual fund, such as Vanguard Group Inc.’s 500 Index Fund, they would have reaped a net cumulative return of 96 percent in the same period.

The “powerful argument” for managed futures turned out to be good for brokers and fund managers but not so good for investors.

In the $337 billion managed-futures market, return-robbing fees like those are common. According to data filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and compiled by Bloomberg, 89 percent of the $11.51 billion of gains in 63 managed-futures funds went to fees, commissions and expenses during the decade from Jan. 1, 2003, to Dec. 31, 2012.

Fees: $1.5 Billion

The funds held $13.65 billion of investor money at the end of last year, according to SEC filings. Twenty-nine of those funds left investors with losses.

What’s more, it seems many of these futures funds escape transparency:

Like hedge funds, managed-futures funds haven’t been required to file with the SEC as a matter of course. However, an SEC rule has mandated that any partnership with more than 500 investors and $10 million in assets — even a hedge fund — must file quarterly and annual reports.

The SEC has no category listing managed-futures funds, as it does for mutual funds or corporate filings. Bloomberg Markets culled through thousands of filings in several categories, including one called “SIC 6221 Unknown,” to identify 63 managed-futures funds that reported to the SEC.

Even sophisticated investors should stay away from these managed funds.