Showing posts with label Financial Activism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Financial Activism. Show all posts

Sunday, 2 October 2016

The Activist Hedge Fund

TRADERS (photo: Harri Homi)

Note: This essay was commissioned in 2015 by VICE USA, who then neglected to publish it. Apologies to everyone who took the time to give me quotes


Hedge fund traders are financial mercenaries. Like all mercenaries, they are hired by rich and powerful people. Unlike some mercenaries, however, their lives are never in danger. Rather, they settle in upmarket offices with wood-paneled boardrooms and sparkling water, getting extraordinarily wealthy by betting on anything from Apple shares to oil futures to distant coalmines operated out of Indonesia.

This, though, is no normal hedge fund. Robin Hood Coop is an activist hedge fund run by anarchic artists.

And this is no ordinary office. It has no wood panelling and no sparkling water. In fact it barely has running water at all, being a graffiti-strewn ex-slaughterhouse in Milan squatted by a radical arts group called Macao. Below us in the hall is a naked woman painted blue wearing a gas mask, dancing to the sonic violence of industrial death-metal music. Next door is a punk street-theatre collective manufacturing artificial vomit in buckets to throw at a protest. There are empty cartridges of police teargas on our table, now used to hold marker pens.

MACAU, MILAN (photo: Harri Homi)

The term ‘hedge fund’ is used loosely. Strictly speaking, Robin Hood is a Finnish cooperative, and you do not need to be rich to join it. You become a member of the co-op by buying a share for 30 euros. They take that money and use it to bet on the US stock markets. To do so, they use an algorithm called ‘The Parasite’, which sucks in lots of stock market data and uses it to make trading decisions. Any profits they make from this trading are then steered back to their members, but also to a communal fund that supports rebellious projects that mess with the mainstream.

The co-founder is the unassuming Finnish political economist Akseli Virtanen. He opens the meeting up with a playful grin, extending his arms and saying, “Welcome to the wild side of finance.”

*
Robin Hood came to life in 2012 when Askeli and a team of artists and critical academics joined forces at the University of Aalto outside Helsinki in Finland. The fund was envisaged as a piece of ‘economic performance art’ and the team went out to raise money from scraggly freelance workers and other lowly chancers. They somehow managed to collect over €500 000. By financial sector standards that’s a pretty tiny amount of money – many funds have billions under management – but it was enough to make the university management very nervous. You guys are artists, not financial traders. Management wanted the project to cease.

Rather than conforming, Akseli got rebellious. He stepped down from the university and Robin Hood went independent. Since then they have focused on building up a global support network of counter-cultural weirdos extending from Helsinki to California.

This network grows through the tradition of Robin Hood’s ‘offices’, where the team meets at different locations around the world to hold workshops in conjunction with a local host group. The first of these offices I attended was in late 2014 in Dublin. It took place in an old abandoned bank, hosted by an assortment of Irish open-source culture devotees. Unlike the closed, secretive and exclusive character of normal hedge funds, Robin Hood’s offices are explicitly open and collaborative. It is not like a private company with confidentiality agreements, and guests do not have to be signed in by security personnel.

(photo: Harri Homi)

The collective is trying to meld together the tools of high finance with the underdog culture of the radical activist underground, and that unusual combination has piqued the interest of many. In the background of the Milan squat, propped against the frame of a cracked window, is the legendary Italian ‘autonomist’ Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. He’s been a prominent figure in anarchist worker politics from the 1960s, rallying people together to create cooperative enterprises and pirate radio stations outside the market economy. Scattered around the room are philosophers of algorithms, hacker culture and digital technology. They mix with coders, designers and creative types like the exuberant Portuguese artist Ana Fradique, who co-manages the fund.

Ana describes Robin Hood as ‘artivism’ – a mix of arts and activism. Indeed, the meetup feels like a synthesis between an intellectual salon, a practical hackathon and a political campaign meeting. On the whiteboard is a scrawled web of lines drawn in marker pen, sketches of company structures and money flows. The team is attempting to explain the outlines of the Robin Hood fund to local Milan activists who are curious about how it works.

SUBVERSIVE SCHEMATICS (photo: Harri Homi)

Akseli takes the lead. “We have, on the one hand, a financialized economy in which the financial sector parasites off almost everything. On the other hand, we have increasing precariousness of labour, an erosion of worker protections. People who sweat in mines or care for the sick get paid almost nothing and live in anxiety, whilst traders who push money around earn enormous sums. In their search for returns big investors seek to enclose and commoditise whatever remaining public commons exist.”

Financial funds often name themselves after mythological figures – like the colossal Cerberus Capital Management styling itself after the three-headed hellhound of the underworld – but the mythic figure of Robin Hood doesn’t fit comfortably within normal financial culture. In one version of the legend he’s a guy who steals from the rich to give to the poor, a champion of economic redistribution. In another, he’s a guy who dares to poach deer in the king’s private forests, a rebel against privatisation of common land. Redistribution, equality and protection of public commons? These are not things that financial institutions normally specialise in.

“Our fund delves into the heartlands of Big Finance and makes money using their own rules,” says Akseli, “and then we distribute the returns back to precarious, insecure workers.”

That sound nice on paper, but does this algorithmic trading actually work? The Parasite algorithm consists of nothing but lines of code, but it is a core member of the team. They feed it with a $15 000-per-year data stream from the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ. In financial jargon, it is a ‘trend-followingalgorithm, which means the Parasite digests the data and seeks to identify herding behaviour among big players in the stock-market, and then makes trades to try profit from that. Robin Hood has achieved double-digit returns with this strategy in both 2013 and 2014. It’s too early to tell if this performance will continue – and 2015 looks to be a leaner year – but it doesn’t seem too bad for a group of relative financial amateurs.

(photo: Harri Homi)

Serbian activist Branko Popovic is sceptical. He’s in Milan to take part in Mayday protests, and has ambled into the room by chance. His day-to-day life involves fighting housing evictions and squatting public theatres due to be turned into luxury apartments. In comparison to such concrete actions, Robin Hood’s financial trickery seems abstract. “I understand you’re trying to be like a vampire on the market”, he says, “but why be a vampire on vampires? They have nothing to give us.”

Branko’s sentiment echoes an age-old tension within radical movements. Do you attempt to work within mainstream structures, or do you attempt to completely bypass them? Robin Hood takes a lot of flak from activists who find the idea of taking an active part in the financial system repugnant. Radical movements often start by imagining the current world as not being the way it should be, and then adopt a stance of defiant rejection, trying to live as if it wasn’t there, avoiding contact with it and seeking purity in small communities of like-minded people.

We saw this during the Occupy Movement. Idealists took to the streets in an attempt to reclaim some public commons, but never attempted to actually occupy the financial institutions themselves. The insults they threw at the banksters did nothing to break down the insider-versus-outsider barrier that financial workers actually rely upon to maintain their powerful mystique. Now it is five years later and the sector has drifted out of the public eye, back to business-as-usual.

Under Akseli’s patient response to Branko there is frustration. “There are no financial virgins. Everyone is implicated in the system in some way or another, and we embrace that. We believe in this world and not in some other. In this world the high priests of finance tell you that you cannot touch their temples. But if something is sacred you must profanate it to bring it back down to earth. The best way to do that is to reach out and touch it, to make it dirty. We want to be irreverent and scandalous.”

*
BOARD MEETING (photo: Harri Homi)
This is not the first time I’ve heard the group being criticised. The project came up as a topic of discussion at a Berlin technology activism meetup that I attended. Robin Hood was treated with a mix of bemusement and scepticism, and a prominent member of the group was dismissive. “It has an element of fun, but let’s face it, it’s just a normal financial fund trading like any other. It’s not an emancipatory project to help workers. It’s just a kind of joke.”

Perhaps being a joke is part of the point. Pekko Koskinen is another member of the Robin Hood collective. In Finland he is part of the Reality Research Center, where he designs ‘reality games’ – games situated in real world settings with hidden rules known only to participants. He views Robin Hood as a type of mischievous game to explore the markets. “People often want clear boundaries between good and evil, professional and amateur, Right and Left, but Robin Hood breaks those binaries. We’re creating a Trojan horse to warp the​ rules of the market. Activists making a hedge fund is a bit like building a home-made surfboard to ride monster waves with professional surfers who say you can't paddle out with them. Sorry, but we’re going to ride.”

LUXURY APARTMENT (photo: Harri Homi)

Reading through Robin Hood’s official documents, one begins to feel that they’ve got the spirit of a joker making fun of the pretences of high finance. They mimic and mock the language to create a deviant dialect. Their May 2015 ‘Grey Paper’ reads like something produced in collaboration between Goldman Sachs and Occupy Wall Street:
"Robin Hood will issue €20 million of collateralized equity notes, called ‘Hood notes’. All investment monies from note issuance will be turned over to the Parasite for investment… Note holders, as denizens of Robin Hood, will continue to design, propose, vote-on, and execute mutual equity programs with all shared proceeds."

Geert Lovink of the Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam is a keen observer of the team. “Robin Hood is a financial hack, a subversive installation that takes the standard conventions set by the big financial institutions and bends them.” It’s a tradition in radical activism that can be traced back to movements like the Situationist International, or the absurdist clowns of the Dada movement. The Dada artist Marcel Duchamp took a urinal and called it Fountain. Robin Hood takes a hedge fund and calls it a liberator of precarious workers.

For Geert, though, the tantalizing element of the fund is that it can actually make money to help other radical projects. “In a world of austerity, the funding for arts, culture and political activism is being cut. Robin Hood offers us a new source of funds, and it does so by using the vehicles of the very financial institutions that caused the austerity in the first place”.


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For a group to apply for a share of the profits made by Robin Hood, though, it must operate outside the ‘work-yourself-to-death-so-you-can-consume-yourself-to-death’ logic of the mainstream economy. And Robin Hood has just announced their first round of distributions. They’ve given €5000 to the autonomous arts space Casa Nuvem in Rio de Janeiro, €6000 to the activist broadcaster Radio Schizoanalytique in Greece, and €4000 to the Commons Transition project run by the P2P Foundation alongside the Catalan Integral Cooperative (CIC).

The CIC is a network of Catalonian cooperatives that was co-founded by bad-boy Spanish bank-activist Enric Duran. €4000 is not massive money, but it’s a welcome boost for a project normally excluded from mainstream funding. "The CIC is a very inspirational commons-based economic network”, says Stacco Troncoso of the P2P Foundation. “We want other community groups around the world to learn from it, so we’re using the funding from Robin Hood to build training materials based on the CIC’s experience for widespread distribution."

*
Akseli is impatient though. Giving away €15000 in trading profits to rebel economic groups is cool, but it is still too small. A key purpose of the Milan workshop, therefore, is to introduce a work-in-progress that the team refers to as ‘Robin Hood 2.0’. According to Akseli, 2.0 will be “even more monstrous” than the first incarnation. Rather than being based out of Finland, he wants to transform Robin Hood into a decentralized global crypto-fund, built using the underlying blockchain technology of the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.

Bitcoin uses a public database – called a blockchain – to record the creation and movement of digital tokens between participants in the Bitcoin network, and thereby keep track of those participants’ token balances. Unlike a bank that keeps a centralised private database to keep score of your money, the Bitcoin blockchain is collectively maintained by a decentralized network of peers. Such a blockchain, though, needn’t only be used to record the existence and movement of digital currency tokens. It could also be used to record the existence and movement of shares… like shares in an activist hedge fund.

Akseli has roots in the radical tradition of worker cooperatives, but he believes that the old-school cooperative is “a form that belongs to the last century”. He believes they can be updated to the current century by using blockchain-based ‘crypto-equity’.

STARE INTO THE BLOCKCHAIN (photo: Harri Homi)

Dan Hassan is a software engineer who has joined the team to test out the feasibility of Robin Hood using blockchain technology. “Old co-ops allowed co-operation between small groups of people, but with crypto-equity we can scale that up” he says. He is part of the burgeoning blockchain community that includes groups like Ethereum, and he has come to Milan to run a session explaining blockchain basics. “A blockchain is a collectively maintained database controlled by no one person. You bring it to life by getting a network of people to all run the same software, and that software has rules for creating a shared account of reality between those people. The more people involved the stronger it is. Imagine a global network of people using this technology to organise themselves into huge digital co-operatives that facilitate mass collaboration.”

So, shares in an activist hedge fund could be created and moved around using such a system, but building a next-generation anarchic crypto-entity to take on Wall Street still seems like a pretty tall order. The team has done most work thus far as unpaid volunteers, but to create this ‘Robin Hood 2.0’ will be a full-time job. And that requires an injection of capital to pay proper salaries.

So what do you do when you need to kickstart a new, risky company? You get venture capitalists involved, of course. The team is on the prowl for a couple million dollars in seed funding so they can start developing 2.0.

But there are reservations. Getting slick venture capitalists on board potentially brings a different political dynamic. VC investors want to see big returns, and how will that jell with the original intent of giving away the profits to countercultural groups? I ask Akseli, but his hacker mentality is already fired up with the idea of messing with something new. “Robin Hood 1.0 was able to assimilate the hedge fund structure, so why not also do it for the venture-funded start-up structure. It’s too good not to try. We do mimicry of Wall Street hedge funds and mimicry of Silicon Valley start-ups”.

Underlying this is a realisation that the power dynamics of Big Finance are shifting. In the US, it is not just the banks and funds of Wall Street in the finance game. There are also the West Coast digital tech gods, waging a new cold war on the traditional financial markets, armed with apps, payment gadgets and internet monopolies. If the waves of power are changing, a subversive surfer might reposition themselves, and that is what Robin Hood is doing.

The team still has the feel of innocents, though, feeling out the contours of the dark side of money. The nervous energy is tangible, and each night in Milan they try to bring it back down to earth, standing on the balcony of the Macao squat, drinking beers, smoking cigarettes. Pekko methodically describes how to make whisky. Finns enjoy such practical matters. They are notoriously quiet, but underneath it lies a self-contained disdain for information that is unnecessary. As core team member Harri Homi wryly confides, “It’s great to break open the black box of finance. But my life I like to just live and leave it as a black box. I do not understand why I do things.”

Long Term Capital Management was an enormous hedge fund that famously went bust in 1998 after the advanced financial theories they based their trading on ended up being out of sync with the reality of the world. Robin Hood faces a similar dynamic. Their radical financial theories could either be complete revelation, or complete hocus-pocus, and there’s no guarantee that their Parasite algorithm carries on working. In this gambit to fuse together algorithmic trading, blockchain technology, Silicon Valley and artistic activism into one epic hack of the financial system, the team in in unchartered waters.

LATE NIGHT AT THE OFFICE (photo: Harri Homi)



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Thursday, 21 February 2013

My first crowdfunding campaign! Help me start a school for financial activism

I've taken a leap into the world of crowdfunding this week as I launch my first Indiegogo campaign. I'm aiming to raise seed funding for a London-based School of Financial Activism. Please do click on the link to take a look at the campaign, and if you feel inspired, I'd love for you to contribute to it!



As I've already mentioned in a previous post, I've got a book on the financial system coming out called The Heretic's Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money. I want to launch the School of Financial Activism as a way to build on themes I've developed in the book, and to help everyday people grapple with and challenge the financial sector. As a reward for contributing, I'm offering four uber-cool limited edition series of the book, as follows:
  • The Junior Trader series: 100 softcovers, signed and delivered
  • The Hardass Cityboys: 25 hardcovers, one for each of the 25 wards of the City of London, along with a discount voucher for the school of financial activism
  • The Hedge Fund Gamblers: 5 hardcovers, with a special gift, and a voucher for the future courses at the school
  • The Three Hackers: 3 hardcovers with bespoke covers, and a voucher for the future courses at the school
Of course, if you contribute you also get the pleasure of knowing that you've helped me start an awesome educational initiative. If you're hard up for cash, no worries - you can also help out by simply spreading the campaign around on Twitter, Facebook and Email. You can use the following link http://igg.me/at/financialactivism/x/2406554.

I'll keep you posted on how the campaign goes. Please help me make it a success! Please do post suggestions for both the crowdfunding campaign, and the course, in the comments section below. Cheers

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Watchdog Capital: Setting a hedge fund bloodhound on the trail of financial crime


The ease with which the Libor scandal has brought down the towering figure of Bob Diamond, master of the universe and investment banker extraordinaire, is truly momentous. It reveals how small cracks in corporate structures can turn into gaping chasms that engulf whole management teams. For those that haven’t been following the scandal, the gist of it is that traders have been caught submitting inaccurate figures to manipulate the Libor rate – an index which tries to reflect the average rate that banks can borrow on the 'interbank market' (aka. from each other) – for various dubious schemes.

Libor relies on banks submitting honest figures to the British Bankers Association (BBA), the organisation that calculates the index. Interestingly enough, I was at a debate a few weeks ago on the topic of financial sector corruption, which pitted investigative journalists Ian Fraser and Nick Kochan against a representative of the British Bankers Association. Kochan and Fraser argued that London was a hotbed for corruption and dirty money. The BBA representative didn't agree, arguing that greed and corruption ends in the City, rather than starting in it. Needless to say, the conversation probably would have been somewhat awkward for him if it had been scheduled for this week instead.

Ian Fraser’s analysis at the debate was hard-hitting. He argued that the concept of genuine stewardship in finance had completely broken down, with people entering it as a glorified get-rich-quick scheme. He argued that big intermediaries (banks) are riddled with conflicts of interest, that they often act at the expense of their clients, and that the ‘Big Four’ accountants are complicit in this process. The regulators are under pressure to prioritise City competitiveness over public interest, and prefer to make scapegoats out of juniors than target senior executives. Even financial journalists are ambivalent about exposing scandals, in fear of losing favour in the courts of precious financial information. Fraser labeled it a ‘dictatorship of finance’, and suggested an independent enquiry was needed in order to regain trust.

Time for a true activist hedge fund
In the wake of the Libor scandal it appears the government might indeed hold some type of enquiry, but I’m skeptical of how deep it will go. If regulators, auditors and even journalists have limited will to uncover fraud, perhaps we need some new approaches. I noticed the other day that Barclay’s share price plummeted over 15% on the news of the Libor scandal. That’s a pretty big drop. If someone had shorted (bet against) Barclays shares, they would have done well. It’s naturally occurred to me then, that perhaps one solution is to set up a hedge fund, trained to sniff out financial fraud, expose it, profit from the resultant scandal, and then steer the money back into further financial activism.

The Investment thesis Part 1: The public scandals are just the tip of the iceberg
The Libor scandal offers fresh insights into financial skulduggery, but it’s always hard to tell whether these instances of financial crime, market manipulation and corruption are once-off anomalies or endemic, widespread problems. For one thing, financial crime is often incredibly difficult to detect, and very hard to prove. The occasional scandals tend to be the most sensational cases, but most corruption probably isn’t overt and outrageous. It could be subtle and even subconscious. Earlier this week The Telegraph published the statement of an insider who claims to have known about the Libor rigging. It echoes some of the points I made in a previous post about the problems whistleblowers face: In an environment where dubious behaviour gets normalised by an overall culture of acquiescence, it’s easy to go along with it. Collective inaction can be as strong a form of corruption as the individual actions they quietly ignore.

I personally tend to think that the cases of corruption we see are just the tip of the iceberg. My basic theory comes partly from an academic paper I wrote back in 2007, entitled Free market crimogenesis, corporate governance and international development. In it, I suggested that free market systems tend to encourage short-termism, and that encouraged structures and value sets which are ‘criminogenic’, a fancy way of saying ‘crime-promoting’ or ‘crime-facilitating’.

The first part of my argument is that there are criminogenic structures within financial organisations. I’m not in the camp that says that rampant greed is the only underlying value in finance, and I strongly believe that people within the sector are motivated by a wide range of factors (as will be discussed in a later post). I would argue though, that financial professionals are often working within structures which can amplify those parts of human behaviour we call ‘greed’. Bonuses are often cited for the damaging incentive effects they can have, promoting ‘get-rich-quick’ expectations, but there are many structures within finance that have criminogenic potential. For example, take job promotion systems in which upward mobility is based on the ability to hit short-term targets. This, over time at least, could (statistically) favour those who are prepared to be 'morally flexible', those who are most prepared (and skilled enough) to bend the rules to meet targets, and those who are prepared to cover up misdemeanors of juniors under them. If middle and higher management gets populated by individuals who view such ‘flexible’ and ‘creative’ behaviour as comparatively normal, the implications for corporate culture lower down the ranks are severe.

The second part of the argument though, is that there is a lack of policing mechanisms to counteract or de-emphasise the short-term greed-enhancing factors in the system. Many systems in the world have crimogenic potential, but that is often dampened and contained through formal policing (e.g. official regulation and legal systems), and informal policing via systems of social disapproval and shunning for bad behaviour. Both of these appear to be somewhat deficient in the financial sector though. Regulators appear muzzled by a serious lack of political will to prosecute financial crime, which means fear of prosecution is limited. As for informal policing, many argue that the culture of finance actively encourages dubious ‘Gordon Gekko’ style behavior. Even if you (like myself) disagree with that stereotype, it’s hard to argue that the internal culture of banks would excel at preventing bad behaviour.

Investment thesis 2: The rest of the iceberg can be successfully uncovered, and exploited
I strongly suspect there is a treasure trove of financial frauds waiting to be discovered. Sniffing out when and where they will be exposed, quickening that process, and then betting on the downfall of exposed companies could be a great investment philosophy, not to mention societally useful. The term ‘activist hedge fund’ is used to describe any fund that challenges company management, but this would be a truly activist hedge fund, steering the profits made in exposing negative behaviour back into financial campaigns.


It wouldn’t be easy though. We’d need a unique combination of skills, a motley crack team of radical crime-fighters. For example, we’d have to hire:
  • Ex-FSA & SEC employees, skilled at the ins and outs of regulation and the loopholes 
  • Ex-traders (and especially rogue traders), skilled at understanding the operations of various financial professionals
  • Criminologists, with deep understanding of criminal structures and how they work
  • Ex-bank IT staff and back office staff, who know the nuances of bank IT systems
  • Activists/Campaigners, passionate about mobilising networks of people and raising awareness
  • Hackers, for occasional… um… unorthodox information retrieval.
  • Ex-FBI agents and Mi6 operatives with advanced analysis and infiltration skills
  • Forensic audit experts, and big data experts, to spot anomalies among numbers
  • DJs: To provide atmospheric background tracks in the office

Days will be spent doing elaborate research of bank structures and strategies. Nights will be spent trawling City bars in search of leads. We’ll have offices on the edge of the financial district (London & New York initially) with big screens mounted to the walls and satellite surveillance equipment. Of course, there will be beanbags in the office, and hammocks.

Now that I come to think of it, such a fund would have obvious crossover with my Financial Wikileaks concept – perhaps the professionals at the fund could be the ones processing leaks that get steered to the site…

Watchdog Capital: Bloodhound Fund No.1
FEED ME BABY
All the details can get straightened out later. Most importantly though, the hedge fund would need a punchy name. Any ideas? There are certain conventions to naming hedge funds and even a hedge-fund name generator. I’m thinking of Watchdog Capital, hunting down financial scandals since 2012. Our first fund could be called The Bloodhound Fund 1, and it will raise money from a variety of angel investors and charitable foundations. If you’re interested in joining the team, send your CVs.

Monday, 30 April 2012

The Safe Deposit Box: Creating a Financial Wikileaks


If you were a bank employee with information about wrongdoing in your division, would you be happy to approach your senior management about it? The Whistleblower Improvement Act of 2011 would require just that, making financial whistleblowers report their concerns to company management rather than approaching government agencies directly. The act has been backed by Rep. Michael Grimm, a former FBI agent who spent a couple years undercover trying to bust dodgy stock brokerages for securities fraud. You’d think that experience would make him attuned to the problems of financial crime, but Michael Smallberg of POGO argues that “Rep. Grimm’s legislation would hobble SEC and CFTC enforcement, chill the flow of high-quality insider tips, imperil the safety and livelihood of whistleblowers, and give law-breaking companies an accountability escape hatch”.

I don't know enough about the proposed legislation to hold any definite views, but in any case GovTrack reckons that there’s only a 2% chance of the bill being passed. The greatest barriers to whistleblowing though, are social, not legal. It’s the threat of being shunned by colleagues, or passed over for promotion. Occasionally an employee just doesn't care about the social fallout, as in the case of Greg Smith’s public letter about Goldman Sachs, but more often than not they do. A life built around workplace social networks can act as a shield against speaking out against it. Potential whistleblowers doubt themselves, or don’t want to be seen as the one to spoil the party (Check out Joris Luyendijk's interview with a whistleblower). Legal support mechanisms do exist for whistleblowers, there’s little in the way of internal cultural support.


The Case for a Financial Wikileaks
That's why I reckon it's very important to have leak sites. They protect employees (to some extent) from senior management retribution, but also provide a way to bypass the social barriers to speaking out. Financial whistleblowers can currently make use of various leak sites (check out the Leak site directory), and regulatory agencies such as the FSA and the Serious Fraud Office do provide mechanisms for them. Wikileaks has previously been used for financial leaks regarding Julius Baer and Barclays, and in 2011 there was speculation that they were going to release a bombshell on Bank of America, based on emails obtained by Anonymous (In the end the emails ended up on bankofamericasuck.com and here, apparently showing dodgy dealings at a BoA subsidiary called Balboa, obtained via a leaker who claimed the bank was trying to cover it up).

Wikileaks though, has mostly made a name for itself in exposing political controversy. People don’t predominantly think of it as the place to go for corporate wrongdoing, and corporate disclosures on the site run the risk of being drowned out by the drone of government abuse. A group that does specialise in corporate disclosure is Anonymous Analytics, a wing of Anonymous specialising in "Acquiring information through unconventional means" (AKA hacking and subterfuge), and presenting it in the form of faux financial research reports. They made a stir last year for exposing potential fraud at Chaoda Modern Agriculture, a Hong Kong company that AnonAnalytics claimed was “overstating its cash balance, exaggerating its revenue, and falsifying its financial statements.” Last week they 'initiated coverage' on Huaboa International, calling it a 'pump and dump scheme with the primary objective of enriching its chairwoman'. AnonAnalystics specialises in 'primary research', but for a while it offered a dropbox facility for would-be whistleblowers. They recently shut that down, apparently because they were unable to deal with the volume of tips, comments and emails they received. Sounds like they need some more staff.

It's not just about crime
Organisations like AnonAnalytics are focused on overt cases of corporate fraud and headline grabbing controversies. Nevertheless, while having channels to expose criminality is important, there are many other equally valid reasons to create a leak site. Wikileaks release of the diplomatic cables, for example, didn't really reveal anything that controversial, but were fascinating because they offered a rare window into the internal culture of diplomatic life, the petty squabbles and power dynamics. It provided huge amounts of material for academic researchers and journalists to gain a better understanding of an otherwise opaque and closed area. There are very few such windows into the financial sector, and to date people have relied on various works of literary pop finance (e.g.Liar's Poker), and once off curiosities such as the Goldman Sachs Elevator Gossip twitter account to get mini-leaks about financial culture.

The Safe Deposit Box: A Tool for Transparency

It seems that there may be a case for a specialised financial leak site. Here's my back-of-the-envelope sketch for the Safe Deposit Box, a site focused on improving transparency in financial institutions (e.g. banks, funds) and commodity trading outfits, by providing a channel to encourage internal leaks. It could be curated by individuals with financial expertise, such that information leaked could be vetted for accuracy and presented correctly (something that non-specialist leak sites might not be able to do effectively). The site could be split into two divisions with different purposes:

  1. A whistleblowing section to allow financial employees to expose dubious behaviour, such as instances of financial crime, market manipulation, insider trading, and rogue trading.
  2. A transparency initiative focused on shedding light on the inner workings of financial institutions. This section would encourage employees to contribute information such as organisational structures, divisional strategies, risk exposures, compensation, and other info that helps to break the near impenetrable wall of secrecy large financial institutions frequently enjoy.
Many people intuitively understand the value of division 1, but division 2 is more tricky to justify. What's the point of transparency for transparency's sake? I would argue that banks and other financial institutions have huge political clout, and yet most citizens have almost no insight into their workings and strategies. For example, do most residents of Chicago have any idea of how a Morgan Stanley consortium came to be owning the city's parking metres? At a larger systemic scale too, it’s the very opacity of financial transactions that leads to increased systemic risk, which in turn impacts broader society. Providing a channel for financial employees to shed light on their organisations would thus have 1) a democratic empowerment benefit and 2) a research and regulation benefit, providing more material for citizens, academics and regulators to understand and monitor the sector.

The transparency initiative could be split into specific research domains that are of particular concern to researchers, campaigners and regulators. For example, domains could include:

  • A high-pay transparency programme to gather leaked payrolls, compensation reports and other material to help in monitoring financial incentive systems
  • A tax haven programme to gather lists of subsidiaries, offshore transactions and other material to help shed light on international tax avoidance systems
  • A loan transparency programme to gather info on loan portfolios of corporate banking divisions, thereby helping to monitor socially and environmentally irresponsible lending
  • A programme gathering info on banks' dealings with Polically Exposed Persons, authoritarian regimes, and dodgy individuals
  • A systemic risk programme gathering info on prop trading levels, interbank risk exposures, and shadow banking systems
  • A programme collecting info on poor customer service (Aka. treating clients as muppets)


I wouldn’t want to be too flippant about this. After all, in encouraging breaches to confidentiality this does border on illegality. Confidentiality though, is frequently used to block attempts to research real issues of concern. For example, in my research into the potentially damaging effects of commodity speculation, I hit a brick wall in trying to find out how much banks make in their agricultural commodity trading desks. They simply don't report it, and refuse any requests for the information. I'm of the opinion that it would be good for society to have some basic info in that regard, to assess whether this is a problem. Similarly, in my research into Glencore in the DRC, I’d love to find out the beneficial ownerships of the shell companies they do business with there. Is there any back office employee in Glencore who wants to send that to me?


SO NEAR, YET SO FAR: A TREASURE TROVE OF INFORMATION

I understand the problems of breaching confidentiality, and I know that leak sites are far from perfect. There are major issues of how such a site would be structured and who would have access to the leaked info. Would you use a (structurally and politically) centralised Wikileaks structure, or something more decentralised like OpenLeaks (set up by Wikileaks defectors, but still yet to launch). Is it better to promote something more conciliatory and collaborative, more like Wikipedia, to allow people with financial expertise to contribute knowledge? All these questions are worth asking. What I do know though, is that financial secrecy tends to benefit a pretty small swathe of society, whilst affecting a huge swathe, and I'm sure many financial workers would love an opportunity to spread the love by spreading the knowledge.

Then again, I have suspicion that such a site might attract the small problem of the financial blockade.


Tuesday, 31 January 2012

A new campaign is born! Banking on something better with MoveYourMoney UK


I tried to spend Christmas day at the London Occupy camps, but truth be told, I couldn't stay there long and ended up wondering the City instead. Maybe I was just melancholic at spending another solitary Christmas, but I couldn’t help feeling that the original dynamism of Occupy was lost. I sat on the stairs of St. Paul’s and looked at a tent calling for everyone to become a vegan. There’s something slightly futile about that message. There's also something highly prescriptive about it, allowing little space for those who might sympathise in principle with the broad critique of finance, but who don't feel included in the ragtag countercultural facade. The Occupy movement is showing real signs of losing steam, and part of it is simply down to the fact that, when push comes to shove, it doesn't really offer that much to the everyday person.

That’s why I’m so pleased MoveYourMoneyUK arrived on the scene today. The campaign asks people to withdraw their money from the huge 'big 5' UK banks (Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds, RBS & Santander), and to deposit some or all of it into co-operatives, mutuals, credit unions and ethical banks. Coming on the heels of the more abstract Occupy-related campaigns, MYM seems to offer a wider range of people the chance to do something highly concrete, and which can make them feel included in an exciting process of incremental positive change.

CHRIS CLARK lays the smackdown on his Santander Card
While Occupy has offered some people a chance to take part in working groups on alternative economics, those always end up being  long on theory and short on practice, effective at making people stop and think for a moment, but not effective in holding them to any action. Indeed, most people are not pissed of with banks because of something imprecise like ‘neoliberalism’. People are pissed off because of specific issues like bonuses, tax avoidance, unethical investments and speculation, all of which are a step away from the ideological arguments about grand economic structure. A simple action like moving money is a practical step that is available to almost anyone to take part in, because even if people don't agree on all the epic ideological questions (like whether we should have a steady state economy etc.), the banking oligopoly has managed to do specific things that annoy the shit out of most people in some way or other.

I was involved in writing some contributions for the website (including a piece on commodity speculation). The overall narrative regarding the problems with banks has been designed to be as simple and intuitive as possible, and I've sketched it out in the diagram on the left. It goes roughly as follows: We deposit money into banks. Those banks claim that they’re committed to supporting small business and productive enterprise, yet most of their lending seems to go into socially useless activities and speculation. They’re notoriously lax in their ethical policies, investing in shite projects and dubious regimes. Through all of this they’re supported by government subsidy that enhances their profits, and they then take the piss with the huge bonuses, which only serves to distort behaviour and increase systemic risk. To top it all, there are the not-so-small issues of tax avoidance and mis-selling scandals.

The campaign lays this out and then lays out the alternative options for people: Put your money into mutuals and ethical banks that will steer clear of risky speculation, and that focus on supporting SMEs and prudent, socially useful lending. The campaign doesn't claim that alternative banks are perfect, but points out, that unlike the major incumbents, they at least make a lot more effort to be sustainable.

What I like most about this campaign is that it is not just a defensive reaction against the current banking system, but also a chance for people to proactively support and build the alternative. You might not have the time or inclination to be actively involved in policy discussions around financial reform, but you can help animate change by steering your money towards those challengers that are forging a new path against the stagnant and complacent banking status quo. It’s as much a creative vote of confidence in the ability to build something new as it is a protest against the old, and I’m fascinated to see how it might affect the alternative banking institutions.

Anyway, that's enough theorising. Please get involved and pledge to move some or all of your money in March 2012! I've already pledged, not that I have much money to move, and since doing that the high street suddenly looks full of exciting opportunities. Should I move to a big alternative like the Co-op Bank, or maybe a building society like Nationwide, or something much smaller like the London Mutual Credit Union? Watch this space for more on that, and in the mean time, check out the cool new MYM UK video...


Friday, 25 November 2011

Heresy in the shadow of the City: Max Keiser sacrifices the sacred cows of finance


London banks were on high alert last week as Max Keiser – the dark lord of financial hellraising – arrived in London to do what he does best: Sacrifice the sacred cows of finance orthodoxy. It’s fitting that he chose to do so in a pub down an alley in London Bridge – The south bank has long been a place of covert speakeasies where villains, pirates and heretics might slag off the king and preach rebellion among the drunken rabble. The event was a fundraiser in aid of Resonance FM, London's alternative arts radio station. Needless to say, it was awesome, and yes, I was drunken rabble.

DARK LORD RAP: MAX RAGES AGAINST THE MACHINE
Max Keiser is in intriguing guy. I don’t claim to know his background in any depth, but the quoted back story says he was 1) initially a stockbroker, 2) then an entrepreneur that started the Hollywood Stock Exchange, (a platform for buying and selling film rights, later sold to the huge brokerage Cantor Fitzgerald) and 3) an entertainer that carved out a media career in fiery financial commentary. For those who haven't seen Max in action, he's one of the most outspoken critics of banking practice. He cuts a compelling figure, using a background in the financial industry as a platform from which to advance ideas that are serious no-go areas in mainstream finance chat… stuff like questioning the entire basis of modern monetary systems and advocating that senior bankers should be burnt at the stake. 

If this stuff was coming from the standard academic commentator, it would probably sound crap, but Max has made an artform out of passionate advocacy of deeply heretical points of view. Where some people would sound preachy and self-righteous, Max just sounds indignant, pissed off, and funny to boot. He has what many critical academics lack – an opportunistic flair and a talent for entertainment. It’s very seldom that someone can make stand-up comedy out of financial commentary, whilst simultaneously making you deeply question things. He’s both a joker with a mischievous flame and an underdog hyena who cares about injustice. He doesn't claim to be pure, and the fact that he’s been out and tried the system gives him clout.

Financial terrorists
MY MATE LLOYD
Max is certainly controversial. In fact, he's pure leveraged controversy. He likes to refer to senior bankers as 'financial terrorists'. He shoots political correctness in the head with disturbing stories of financial rape and epic incompetence. He told us about 'the suicide trader', a concept he's been dreaming up as the basis for a potential upcoming production: The story goes that there's this trader in the World Trade Centre, watching the planes coming and deciding to stay in his chair betting against aeroplane stocks instead of trying to escape. Methinks that could cause a stir...



Karma-banking
OUTLAWS: STACY HERBERT & MAX
I met a hedge fund manager a few months ago who knows and loves Max. This probably supports my point, made in a recent Guardian article, that some of the best hedge fund managers are those that do not give a flying f**k about what they’re supposed to think. Max himself has dabbled in some interesting hedge fund ideas. Back in the early 2000s he started Karmabanque. Although it’s suggested that Karmabanque was a  hedge-fund in and of itself, Max has characterised it as a ‘broker of dissent’ – a middleman between hedge funds looking to bet against companies, and activists looking to target companies with campaigns. I haven't been able to drill down into the exact structure of Karmabanque and how effective it was, but it's a thought-provoking idea: Betting against companies with poor social and environmental records and then making them targets of activism to drive down their share prices. Some would call that idea 'market-manipulation'. Others would call it sweet justice, a scheme in the spirit of Robin Hood and other underdog rogues (see Greenpeace article). Theoretically speaking, money made in the process could be steered back into doing something positive, like investing in renewable energy, but in the end it seems Karmabanque was shelved. It now provides an interesting model to consider when designing any future activist hedge funds.

Calling the emperor's new clothes: Buy silver, crash JP Morgan
More recently Max has become known for his 'Buy silver, crash JP Morgan' campaign. Max believes that JP Morgan is deeply exposed to a huge naked short position in silver. If it is true, it means JP Morgan is seriously vulnerable to the price of silver going up too much. He reckons that if enough people try buy silver to force the price up, JP Morgan would be forced to try cover its short position (i.e. reverse it's bet against silver), leading to a runaway 'short-squeeze' (in which they scramble to buy silver to get out of their trading position and in so doing cause the price to skyrocket even more) causing JP Morgan to go bankrupt. Here is the dramatised version:



It’s an interesting theory, and not one that I know enough about to have any particular view on it. Max seems pretty sure of himself though, and the campaign goes on. In any case, he advocates the possession of precious metals as a much better alternative to fiat currencies, which he thinks are all going to shit. 

Time will tell if Max is right or wrong, but regardless of what you think of his ideas, it’s great to a have an original voice of dissent challenging orthodoxy. I'm always a supporter of muckrakers that keep the system on its toes, and after an hour or so of standing there listening to him I was cheering like a maniac and thinking ‘ah shit Max, you’re cool, can I come talk to you?’ Then he was swamped with fans and I decided against doing that. Maybe I'll meet him one day and we can compare notes.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Suitpossum in the Guardian: On Financial Activism and the Occupy Movement


Winter is approaching and it’s looking like one of discontent. St. Paul’s cathedral has become home to a couple hundred protesters freezing in colourful tents, railing against the global financial sector. It's the Occupy London movement.

On Tuesday night I attended the general assembly outside St. Paul's. It was mostly to go through certain housekeeping protocols, like why it’s a bad idea to piss in bottles and throw them into public bins. Other items on the agenda were issues of security and maintaining good relationships with the St Paul’s clergy. It’s calmed down a lot since the first Saturday, when the cops were doing their tacky psychological warfare techniques, whispering sweet nothings like “Sir, if you enter the protest, you may not be able to leave again.” There’s a few cops left now, but they’re mostly blending into the scenery.

I was impressed by the camp food system that has sprung up, driven by kind donations, some from local chains like Pret (which incidentally are making shedloads of cash from cold protesters buying coffee from them). We even managed to get some sushi to go with our homemade vegetable soup. I was slightly less impressed by the public talks that have been occurring, a lot of (what I perceive to be) clichéd stuff about neoliberalism and bankers, and in general nothing particularly interesting or new. Indeed, it still seems to be much the same crowd that does all the protests. I suggested during the general assembly discussion group that much more needs to be done to translate the message to a wider audience, lest it fizzle out into a cliquey back-patting exercise.

KETTLE-FRIED LOVE
These issues weigh on my mind a lot, and yesterday I got an article published in the Guardian entitled 'Has the Occupy movement considered subverting global finance from within'. It was pointing out that while occupying a physical space is a worthwhile exercise, I think it’s time activists started pushing the  conceptual boundaries of protest. I want progressive movements to try gain some control of the creative potential of the financial sector.

Needless to say, when you put yourself out there in a public forum (such as the Guardian), you get all sorts of ideologues that try throw knives at you. It was fun defending my ideas, but the ad hominem attacks are pretty disturbing at first. One suggested I wasn’t worthy of being in the human race. A couple attacked my professional credentials. A few attacked my grasp of socialist theory, under the somewhat presumptuous assumption that having read the great Marxian works was a prerequisite to commenting on activist techniques.

Such is the nature of public commentary though, and, on the plus side, some great people have got hold of me to discuss the ideas further. It's really rewarding to hear opinions on how the concept of financial activism could be refined, so please do read the article and post any comments on the Guardian site, or here. I'll be  sure to respond.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

G-20 Demonstrations: Two Years On


On Thursday the Guardian reported on a High Court ruling, holding that the Metropolitan Police were unlawful in ‘kettling’ protesters during the G-20 demonstrations in April 2009.


Two years ago, I took this photo. It was some three hours after the police line came like a running of the riot bulls down Bishopsgate, randomly trampling flower-children in a startling display of the arbitrary powers of the state. The bulldozing was sanctioned for some official reason not quite understood by anyone present, especially considering they’d chosen to target the hippies rather than the anarchists, but apparently it was necessary, for some reason, unknown to anyone present. Note the Financial Times in the foreground. There was an article in it by Martin Wolf entitled ‘The urgency of now: Why tomorrow’s G-20 summit will fail to deal with the big challenges.” It made for interesting reading while the police deployed their state-of-the-art kettling strategy.

This guy in the photo was employed as a wall of silence, but I chatted to him, and he made thoughtful comments like “I am not authorised to answer questions on the situation.” I took a piss under a big metal door, kind of an attempt to have my say in the face of this deprivation of voice. A high-spirited dude with overalls came over with his hand in the air. “Hey man,” he shouted, “high five, you came disguised as a banker!” We slapped hands, and I said, “Actually I’m a derivatives broker”. He froze on the spot. “Oh right, I’ve got a friend who’s an accountant.” I had to laugh at the suggestion that there was some similarity between an accountant and a broker. “Really, accountants are not nearly as bad as derivatives brokers man. Accountants can only really distort numbers, whereas we can distort entire markets.” He stood there uncomfortably, but I suppose it’s not usual to have this kind of conversation at a rally united by an apparent stand against the excesses of financial capitalism.

I guess the whole kettling strategy was a massive success. By inciting anger that didn’t originally exist, the police forces justified their presence in a self-fulfilling feedback loop. It was a loop that got unstable though, and one that jeopardised their ability to extricate themselves from the situation. They were on the verge of losing the psychological edge and spontaneous forms of coherent rebellion were starting to emerge. Nothing brings out the ‘fuck you’ in people like arbitrary power, and sooner or later, people get together and override it. At that point, bringing in the snapping dogs only makes people angrier.

So, after six hours, they let us out. Some of the cops looked as if they were about to cry. I walked past one of the guys and said, “Thanks man, you did a good job tonight.” He almost choked. “Thank you, that’s the nicest thing anyone has said to me all day.”

He did do a good job, but it was a job in the service of an utterly pointless attempt to stifle a necessary part of the workings of a democratic society. Good to see that the high court has recognised that.