Gambler Ruined: Sam Bankman-Fried’s Bizarre Notions of Risk and the Blow-Up of FTX

The drama continues for Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF), the former head of now-bankrupt crypto exchange FTX. This past week has been giving a series of interviews, in which he (the brilliant master, the White Knight, of the crypto world a mere month ago) is trying to convince us (potential jurors?) that he is too dim-witted to have masterminded a shell game of international wire transfers, and that he had no idea what was happening in the closely-held company of which he was Chief Executive Officer. (For an entertaining take on what We The People think of SBF’s disclaimers, see responses in this thread ttps://twitter.com/SBF_FTX/status/1591989554881658880, especially the video posted by “Not Jim Cramer”). 

The word on the street is that his former partner Caroline Ellison (who he has been implicitly throwing under the bus with his disclaimers of responsibility for the multi-billion dollar transfers from his FTX to her Alameda company) may well be cutting a deal with prosecutors to testify against SBF.  It remains to be seen whether SBF’s monumental political donations will suffice to keep him from doing hard time.

But all that legal drama aside, the SBF saga brings up some interesting issues on risk management. Earlier here on EWED James Bailey  highlighted a revealing exchange between SBF and Tyler Cowen, in which SBF displayed a heedless neglect of the risk of catastrophic outcomes, as long as there is a reasonable chance of great gain:

TC: Ok, but let’s say there’s a game: 51% you double the Earth out somewhere else, 49% it all disappears. And would you keep on playing that game, double or nothing?

SBF: Yeah…take the pure hypothetical… yeah.

TC: So then you keep on playing the game. What’s the chance we’re left with anything? Don’t I just St. Petersburg Paradox you into non-existence?

SBF: No, not necessarily – maybe [we’re] St. Petersburg-paradoxed into an enormously valuable existence. That’s the other option.

Boiled down, the St Petersburg Paradox involves a scenario where you have a 50% chance of winning $2.00, a 25% (1/4) chance of winning $4.00, a 1/8 chance of winning $8.00, and so on without limit. If you add up all the probabilities multiplied by the amount won for each probability, the Expected Value for this scenario is infinite. Therefore it seems like it would be rational, if you were offered a chance to play this game, to stake 100% of your net worth in one shot. However, almost nobody would actually do that; most folks might spend something like $20 or maybe 0.1% of their net worth for a shot at this, since the likely prospect of losing a large amount does not psychologically compensate for the smaller chance of gaining a much, much larger amount. But SBF is not “most folks”.

Victor Haghani recently authored an article on risk management and on SBF’s approach:

Most people derive less and less incremental satisfaction from progressive increases in wealth – or, as economists like to say: most people exhibit diminishing marginal utility of wealth. This naturally leads to risk aversion because a loss hurts more than the equivalent gain feels good. The classic Theory of Choice Under Uncertainty recommends making decisions that maximize Expected Utility, which is the probability-weighted average of all possible utility outcomes.

SBF explained on multiple occasions that his level of risk-aversion was so low that he didn’t need to think about maximizing Expected Utility, but could instead just make his decisions based on maximizing the Expected Value of his wealth directly. So what does this mean in practice? Let’s say you find an investment which has a 1% chance of a 10,000x payoff, but a 99% chance of winding up worth zero. It has a very high expected return, but it’s also very risky. How much of your total wealth would you want to invest in it?

There’s no right or wrong answer; it’s down to your own personal preferences. However, we think most affluent people would invest somewhere between 0.1% and 1% of their wealth in this investment, based on observing other risky choices such people make and surveys we’ve conducted…

SBF on the other hand, making his decision strictly according to his stated preferences, would choose to invest 100% of his wealth in this investment, because it maximizes the Expected Value of his wealth.

Even in a game with a fair 50/50 outcome, a player with finite resources will eventually go broke. This is the “Gambler’s Ruin” concept in statistics. SBF’s outsized penchant for risk took his net worth to something like $30 billion earlier this year, something we more-timid souls will never achieve, but it eventually proved to be his undoing.

Most people have a more or less logarithmic sense of the utility of money – if you only have $1000, the gain or loss of $100 is significant, whereas $100 is lost in the noise for someone whose net worth is over a million dollars. SBF apparently felt that he was playing with such big numbers, that he did not need to worry about big losses, as long as there was a chance at a big, big win. Here is a Twitter Thread  by SBF, from  Dec 10, 2020:

SBF: …What about a wackier bet? How about you only win 10% of the time, but if you do you get paid out 10,000x your bet size?

[So, if you have $100k,] Kelly* suggests you only bet $10k: you’ll almost certainly lose. And if you kept doing this much more than $10k at a time, you’d probably blow out.

…this bet is great Expected Value; you win [more precisely, your Expected Value is] 1,000x your bet size.

…In many cases I think $10k is a reasonable bet. But I, personally, would do more. I’d probably do more like $50k.

Why? Because ultimately my utility function isn’t really logarithmic. It’s closer to linear.

…Kelly tells you that when the backdrop is trillions of dollars, there’s essentially no risk aversion on the scale of thousands or millions.

Put another way: if you’re maximizing EV(log(W+$1,000,000,000,000)) and W is much less than a trillion, this is very similar to just maximizing EV(W).

Does this mean you should be willing to accept a significant chance of failing to do much good sometimes?

Yes, it does. And that’s ok. If it was the right play in EV, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.

(*The Kelly criterion is a formula that determines the optimal theoretical size for a bet.)

Haghani concludes, “It seems like SBF was essentially telling anyone who was listening that he’d either wind up with all the money in the world, which he’d then redistribute according to his Effective Altruist principles – or, much more likely, he’d die trying.”

( Full disclosure: I have lost an irritating amount of money thanks to SBF’s shenanigans. My BlockFi crypto account is frozen due to fallout from the FTX collapse, with no word on if/when I might see my funds again. )

Protests Erupt Across China Over COVID Policy But Lockdowns Continue: Why?

Headlines in today’s financial news include items like “Clashes in Shanghai as COVID protests flare across China“ from Yahoo Finance. There have been widespread protests this week, which are normally a rarity under the authoritarian regime, and are being suppressed by any means necessary. Apple stock is down about 4% in the past two trading days on fears that iPhone shortages will get worse due to worker unrest in the giant Foxconn factory in Zhengzhou. Wall Street keeps hoping the China will loosen up, since the lockdowns on the world’s second-largest economy are a drag on global markets.

China has pursued a “zero-COVID” policy, of strict mass lockdowns to halt any spread of the virus. Residents have been confined to their apartments for over 3 months in some cases. Whole cities with tens of millions of people have been locked down for months at a time whenever a number of cases are spotted. China’s economic growth has stagnated, and unemployment among young people has risen to 20%, which has helped fuel unrest.  Chinese people are aware that the rest of the world has moved on from mass lockdowns, and may be realizing the futility of thinking that lockdowns can stave off the virus indefinitely.

Given its discomfort with widespread discontent and protests, why does the Chinese government persist in this policy? An article in the Atlantic by Michael Shuman answers that question: “Zero COVID Has Outlived Its Usefulness. Here’s Why China Is Still Enforcing It. “  Back in 2020 when COVID first swept through the world, the strict lockdowns (readily enforced in an authoritarian regime) seemed like a big win for the Chinese leadership:

When the outbreak began in Wuhan in early 2020, the virus was unknown, vaccines were unavailable, and China’s poorly equipped health system could have quickly become overwhelmed by a sweeping pandemic. Yet the policy had a political element from the very beginning as well. The Communist Party is adept at sniffing out threats to its rule, and it quickly identified COVID as one of them. A major public-health crisis, with millions dying, would have raised serious doubts about the regime’s competence, which is, in effect, its sole claim to legitimacy.

Worse, the party could have faced a populace that directly blamed it for the outbreak—with good reason. The Chinese authorities at both the national and local levels botched their initial response to the novel coronavirus, suppressing information about its discovery by a Wuhan doctor and acting far too slowly to contain the initial spread. Sensing its potential vulnerability, the party shifted into anti-COVID overdrive, shutting down large swaths of the country, with the result that it did succeed in snuffing out an epidemic in a matter of weeks, even as it spread to the rest of the world.

That success allowed the Communist Party to transform a potential tragedy into a public-relations triumph. Within weeks of the Wuhan outbreak, China’s propaganda machine was touting the wonders of its virus-busting methods. And as the U.S. and other Western countries struggled to contain the disease, Beijing’s big win became even more valuable as evidence that its authoritarian system was more capable and caring than any democratic one. Beijing and its advocates pointed to rising case and death counts in the U.S. as proof of China’s superiority and American decline.

A number of other countries including Australia and New Zealand also implemented strict (stricter than in the U.S.) lockdown measures in 2020, and, like China, experienced far less impact from the virus in that timeframe than seen in the U.S. However, most of these measures were lifted in 2021. The widespread application of mRNA vaccines like those from Pfizer and Moderna in the West has served to mitigate the severity of the viral infection. Also, some measure of herd immunity has been achieved by the widespread exposure to COVID in the population; antibodies persist for at least eight months after contracting the disease. So, what’s up with China?

China has resisted using Western vaccines, relying instead on homegrown vaccines which are less effective, though they do give some measure of protection.  Also, “The additional layers of high-tech surveillance adopted in the name of pandemic prevention can be used to enhance the tracking and monitoring of the populace more generally,” which is another win for the government. However, the major factor is that the Party, and especially President Xi, cannot afford to loosen up now and risk an embarrassing explosion of cases that would overburden the healthcare system and probably lead to millions of deaths:

The victory of zero COVID was claimed not just as the party’s but as Xi Jinping’s in particular. The State Council, China’s highest governing body, declared in a 2020 white paper that Xi had “taken personal command, planned the response, overseen the general situation and acted decisively, pointing the way forward in the fight against the epidemic.”

This narrative became entrenched. If Beijing loosened up and allowed COVID to run amok, the Chinese system would appear no better than those of loser democracies, and Xi would seem like another failing politician, a mere mortal, not the virus-fighting superhero he was painted as. Zero COVID’s failure would be a disaster for the Communist Party’s veneer of infallibility.

So the leadership insists on zero COVID and damn the consequences.

My BlockFi Crypto Account Is Frozen Due to Monster FTX Exchange Blowup

About a year ago, I posted some articles touting the use of BlockFi as an alternative checking account. It paid around 9% interest (this was back when interest rates were essentially zero on regular savings accounts), and allowed withdrawal or deposit of funds at any time. Nice. BlockFi is associated with respected firm Gemini, and (unlike many crypto operations) is U.S. based, with consistent formal auditing. They earned interest on my crypto by lending it out to “trusted counter-parties”, always backed by extra collateral. What could possibly go wrong?

In July I wrote about a big cryptocurrency meltdown, in which a number of medium-sized players went bust.  At that time, BlockFi assured its customers that its sound business practices put it above the fray, no problemo. They did make it through that juncture OK. But I withdrew a third of my funds, just to be on the safe side.

The huge news in crypto this past week has been the sudden, total implosion of major exchange FTX (more on that below). FTX is a major business partner with BlockFi. No worries, though, as of Tuesday of last week,  BlockFi COO Flori Marquez tweeted that “All BlockFi products are fully operational”.  Then the hammer dropped: On Thursday (11/10), BlockFi froze withdrawals, due to complications with FTX. My remaining crypto is stranded, most likely for years of legal proceedings, and I may never get it all back. I’m not going to starve, but the amount is enough to hurt.

In this case, I don’t really blame BlockFi – by all accounts, they have been trying to run an honest, responsible business. Before last week, nobody had much reason to think that FTX was totally rotten.  My bad for not connecting the FTX-BlockFi dots earlier, and pulling out more funds when I had the chance.

The Great FTX Debacle

The star of this show is Sam Bankman-Fried, the (former) head of FTX:

James Bailey posted here on EWED on the FTX crash last week. CoinDesk author David Morris summarized the downfall of Bankman-Fried’s crypto empire:

FTX and Bankman-Fried are unique in the stature they achieved before self-immolating. Over the past three years, FTX has come to be widely regarded as a reputable exchange, despite not submitting to U.S. regulation. Bankman-Fried has himself become globally influential, thanks to his thoughts on cryptocurrency regulation and his financial support for U.S. electoral candidates – not necessarily in that order.

Facts first uncovered by CoinDesk played a major role in the events of the past week. On Nov. 2, reporter Ian Allison published findings that roughly $5.8 billion out of $14.6 billion of assets on the balance sheet at Alameda Research, based on then-current valuations, were linked to FTX’s exchange token, FTT.

This finding, based on leaked internal documents, was explosive because of the very close relationship between Alameda and FTX. Both were founded by Bankman-Fried, and there has been significant anxiety about the extent and nature of their fraternal dealings. The FTT token was essentially created from thin air by FTX, inviting questions about the real-world, open-market value of FTT tokens held in reserve by affiliated entities.

Negative speculation about a financial institution can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, triggering withdrawals out of a sense of uncertainty and leading to the very liquidity problems that were feared.

Customers started a “run on the bank”, withdrawing billions of dollars of assets, leading to total insolvency of FTX:

The Financial Times reported that FTX held approximately $900 million in liquid crypto and $5.4 in illiquid venture capital investments against $9 billion in liabilities the day before it filed for bankruptcy.

If FTX had been run as an honest exchange, this withdrawal should not have been too much of a problem – – just give customers back the coins they had deposited with FTX. Apparently, though, FTX had taken customer assets and transferred them over to a sister company, Alameda, to trade with. The valuable customer crypto assets left the FTX balance sheet, and were largely replaced by the self-generated (and now nearly worthless) FTT token:

It remains worryingly unclear, though, exactly why even such a dramatic rush for the exits would have led FTX to seek its own bailout. The exchange promised users that it would not speculate with cryptocurrencies held in their accounts. But if that policy was followed, there should have been no pause to withdrawals, nor any balance sheet gap to fill. One possible explanation comes from Coinmetrics analyst Lucas Nuzzi, who has presented what he says is evidence that FTX transferred funds to Alameda in September, perhaps as a loan to backstop Alameda’s losses.

It doesn’t help that on Friday (11/11) some $477 million was outright stolen from FTX wallets. (The Kraken exchange said it has identified the thief and are working with law enforcement).

Where does the FTX saga go from here? There seems little in the way of assets left for the bankruptcy judge to distribute to former customers and creditors. In the case of BlockFi, they are dependent on a $400 million line of credit extended to them by FTX back in June, to keep operating. And who knows how much of BlockFi assets were stored with FTX – – since FTX was to be their white knight, BlockFi would not be in a position to withdraw deposits from FTX like other customers did.

I predict that nothing really bad will happen to Bankman-Fried and his buddies who ran this thing. Although its operation was apparently dishonest, it is not clear how much is subject to U.S. federal or state legal jurisdiction. Bankman-Fried and friends ran their empire from a big apartment suite in the Bahamas. Plus, he is pretty well-connected. Beside his massive campaign contributions, his business and sometimes romantic partner Caroline Ellison (she is CEO of Alameda) is the daughter of MIT professor Glenn Ellison, the former boss (as colleagues at MIT) of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission chair Gary Gensler. These relations were captured in an impish tweet by Elon Musk:

The Sins of TikTok, Part 1: Extreme Privacy Theft by China-Based Company

Social media apps are nosy by nature; it is no secret that their main business model is to snoop out information about you, the user, and package and sell that information to advertisers who can target you. But there is one wildly popular app which goes beyond the norms of intrusiveness and privacy invasion AND is targeted largely at children and adolescents AND is based in China and thus is subject to Big Brother’s request for any and all data. That app is TikTok.

To avoid a bunch of re-wording, I will largely share excerpts from “ The Privacy Risks of TikTok – Why This Invasive App is So Dangerous “ by Priscilla Sherman at VPNOverview. Other articles echo her concerns with TikTok:

TikTok is an extremely popular social media video app owned by the Chinese tech company ByteDance. On TikTok, users can create and share short-form videos using a variety of filters and effects. The platform is full of dancing, comedy, and other entertaining videos….

Several agencies and news outlets are now sounding the alarm and reporting on the many problems that have surfaced. ByteDance claims to want to break away from its Chinese background in order to serve a global audience and says it will never share data with the Chinese government. This claim, however, seems impossible now that new security laws have been introduced in Hong Kong.

TikTok’s user base mostly consists of children and adolescents, which many consider to be vulnerable groups. This is a main reason for different authorities to express their worries. However, it isn’t just the youth that might be in danger from TikTok. From December 2019 onwards, U.S. military personnel were no longer allowed to use TikTok, as the app was considered a ‘cyber threat’…

[Hacker group] Anonymous has published a video listing the many dangers of TikTok. They quote a source that has done extensive research on TikTok: “Calling it an advertising platform is an understatement. TikTok is essentially malware that is targeting children. Don’t use TikTok. Don’t let your friends and family use it. Delete TikTok now […] If you know someone that is using it, explain to them that it is essentially malware operated by the Chinese government running a massive spying operation.”

These claims fit in with the recent developments surrounding TikTok. For example, Apple researchers announced that TikTok deliberately spies on users.

Claims keep piling up, showing that TikTok is a very invasive application that poses a substantial privacy risk. It seems that the data collection at TikTok goes much further than other social platforms such as Facebook or Instagram. This is surprising, since both of these companies have already faced backlash for the way they’ve dealt with user privacy. TikTok seems to collect data on a much larger scale than other social media platforms do. This, combined with TikTok’s origins makes it quite plausible that the Chinese government has insight into all of this collected data…..

Research from a German data protection website has revealed that TikTok installs browser trackers on your device. These track all your activities on the internet. According to ByteDance, these trackers were put in place to recognize and prevent “malicious browser behavior”. However, they also enable TikTok to use fingerprinting techniques, which give users a unique ID. This enables TikTok to link data to user profiles in a very targeted way.

Unfortunately, this happens with a great disregard of privacy – perhaps intentionally so. The German researchers indicate, for example, that IP addresses aren’t anonymized when TikTok uses Google Analytics, meaning your online behavior is directly linked to your IP address. An IP address provides information about your location and, indirectly, about your identity…

A user on Reddit used reverse engineering to figure out more about TikTok. Anonymous quoted the results in the video we mentioned earlier. The Reddit user discovered that TikTok collects all kinds of information:

  • Your smartphone’s hardware (CPU type, hardware IDs, screen size, dpi, memory usage, storage space, etc.);
  • Other apps installed on your device;
  • Network information (IP, local IP, your router’s MAC address, your device’s MAC address, the name of your Wi-Fi network);
  • Whether your device was rooted/jailbroken;
  • Location data, through an option that’s turned on automatically when you give a post a location tag (only happens on some versions of TikTok);

Additionally, the app creates a local proxy server on your device, which is officially used for “transcoding media”. However, this is done without any form of authentication, making it susceptible to misuse….

We asked investigative journalist and writer Maria Genova about her vision on TikTok. … Genova says: There’s a reason several countries have banned it. It’s unbelievable how much information an app like that pulls from your phone”…

TikTok needs access to your camera and microphone in order to work properly… However, there aren’t any specifications explaining how exactly these permissions are used. Therefore, TikTok could theoretically record conversations and sounds using your microphone, even when you aren’t filming a TikTok video.

We could go on and on with the technical details here, but you get the point. The fact that “IP addresses aren’t anonymized“ is really a big, bad deal. The article concludes:

The current findings and concerns surrounding TikTok are reason enough for us [the staff at VPNOverview] to remove the app from our devices. Whether TikTok’s main target group – young people between 14 and 25 – is sensitive to the privacy concerns that have come to light, remains to be seen.

Indeed.

One more quote , from Brendan Carr of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), regarding the reliability of TikTok’s claims that they do not share data with the Chinese government:

“China has a national security law that compels every entity within its jurisdiction to aid its espionage and what they view as their national security efforts,” Carr said earlier this year, alluding to the fact that Chinese companies must make all the data they collect available to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Stay tuned for Part 2, dealing with some larger market ramifications of TikTok’s evasion of  Apple and Android privacy protections.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This just in from BuzzFeed (added to original post here):

“Leaked Audio From 80 Internal TikTok Meetings Shows That US User Data Has Been Repeatedly Accessed From China”

For years, TikTok has responded to data privacy concerns by promising that information gathered about users in the United States is stored in the United States, rather than China, where ByteDance, the video platform’s parent company, is located. But according to leaked audio from more than 80 internal TikTok meetings, China-based employees of ByteDance have repeatedly accessed nonpublic data about US TikTok users — exactly the type of behavior that inspired former president Donald Trump to threaten to ban the app in the United States.

The recordings, which were reviewed by BuzzFeed News, contain 14 statements from nine different TikTok employees indicating that engineers in China had access to US data between September 2021 and January 2022, at the very least. Despite a TikTok executive’s sworn testimony in an October 2021 Senate hearing that a “world-renowned, US-based security team” decides who gets access to this data, nine statements by eight different employees describe situations where US employees had to turn to their colleagues in China to determine how US user data was flowing. US staff did not have permission or knowledge of how to access the data on their own, according to the tapes.

“Everything is seen in China,” said a member of TikTok’s Trust and Safety department in a September 2021 meeting.

How to Magnetize a Screwdriver (So It Holds onto a Screw)

This is an economics blog; here is a life hack that can save you some money, and maybe time.  It can be really helpful to have your screwdriver magnetized, so a screw will stick to it. This past weekend I helped someone repair a microwave door, and for re-assembly I had to get a screw into its hole, where its hole was recessed in a narrow space where I could not have held the screw with my fingers whilst starting it with the screwdriver. So it was very helpful to just stick the screw on the end of the tool, and (carefully) insert the tip of the screw into its threaded hole and just start turning. Likewise, it was helpful in disassembly to be able to draw a screw out with the magnetized tip.

You can go buy a set of magnetized screwdrivers from Amazon. But these get mixed reviews and of course cost money and shipping delay and now you have more screwdrivers to store. A comment in one of the Amazon reviews clued me in that you can easily magnetize a screwdriver which you already have. Here is how:

( 1 ) Start with a strong magnet – – maybe a single magnet that you happen to have, or make a stack of say five medium sized disk refrigerator magnets. Techies can remove magnets from an old speaker or hard drive.

( 2 ) Using only one end (pole) of your magnet, draw it along the  screwdriver shaft, from the top or middle out to the end, always in the same direction. Do this maybe four times, then rotate the screwdriver a quarter turn, then make another four strokes, and so on for all four sides of the screwdriver. You’re done.

I did this, and it worked great. A couple of further comments – – first, if there is no rubbery coating on your magnet and you don’t want to scratch up the finish on your screwdriver, you could put a single layer of  masking tape or painters tape on the part of the magnet that is scraping along the screwdriver. Second, the hard steel of the screwdriver is not a great permanent magnet. You might need to do this again in a year, and you will never get a really strong magnetic effect (this may be why there were some complaints on Amazon). Also, if you give the screwdriver some sharp taps (or drop it on concrete floor), it can rescramble the magnetic domains and lose  magnetic orientation in the steel, so again you’d have to repeat the treatment.

You can also magnetize a screwdriver by wrapping a coil of insulated wire around it, and hooking the wire up to a battery. Also, you can make the screwdriver magnetic temporarily by sticking a disk magnet on the shaft.

I suppose you could bring your magnet to your friend’s house and process his or her favorite screwdriver next time you go over for some other reason. Or you could make magnetized screwdrivers for gifts.

Some references:

https://www.wikihow.com/Magnetize-a-Screwdriver

https://www.instructables.com/How-to-Magnetize-a-Screwdriver-at-Home/

Bonus hack: How to Sanitize Face Masks

Now we are back to being able to buy KN95 and (even better) KF94 face masks, if a mask gets too breathed in, we can just throw it out and get a new one. But if for some reason (a new pandemic apocalypse like 2020?) you need to disinfect a face mask, there are ways.

Most flu and coronaviruses cannot live indefinitely on a dry surface. So one approach is simply to put each mask in its own dry paper bag (to prevent contact with more virus particles) and leave in a dry, preferably warm place for 3 days.

If you are in a hurry, apparently heating for 60 minutes at  the oven at 70°C (158°F) will also do the trick.

Reference: https://smartairfilters.com/en/blog/disinfect-clean-n95-mask-virus-coronavirus/

Can You Use an Expired Home COVID Test?

Using a COVID test is a fairly serious matter – the results of such tests drive decisions on staying home and isolating or not, which in turn affect the spread of the virus in the population. I am known to use medicines that maybe expired six months earlier, figuring that the med will still be say 80% effective, but for a COVID test I want it to be as accurate as possible.

We all have on our shelves boxes of rapid COVID tests which were send out by the government in the first half of 2022. Most of these tests had nominal six-month lives, so according to what is stamped on the box, they are expiring right about now.

But wait – – that six-month life was just a (conservative) estimate from back when the tests were manufactured. For about a dozen out of the original 22 approved tests, subsequent data has shown that the tests remain accurate for longer than six months. Typically, the approved life is extended an additional six months or more. So before using or throwing out a box whose stamped expiration date has passed, go to this FDA link. You can quickly find your brand of test. The instructions for using this site are:

To see if the expiration date for your at-home OTC COVID-19 test has been extended, first find the row in the below table that matches the manufacturer and test name shown on the box label of your test.   

  • If the Expiration Date column says that the shelf-life is “extended,” there is a link to “updated expiration dates” where you can find a list of the original expiration dates and the new expiration dates.  Find the original expiration date on the box label of your test and then look for the new expiration date in the “updated expiration dates” table for your test.   
  • If the Expiration Date column does not say the shelf-life is extended, that means the expiration date on the box label of your test is still correct.  The table will say “See box label” instead of having a link to updated expiration dates.  

A couple more notes re COVID Tests:

( 1 ) The tests do detect the omicron BA.5 subvariant, which has driven much of the infections lately. However, if you have been exposed to COVID, the new recommendation is to take three (instead of just two) tests, at least 48 hours apart. (If you take the test too early, not enough antigen has built up to detect, so you might get a false negative).

( 2 ) Although the initial federal program for free tests has expired, there are several ways to still get free tests. Any health insurer will pay for them, as will Medicare. And there are other venues for uninsured or low-income people. See this article.

Some Random Gifts (Maybe for Yourself) To: Clean Sap/Tar Off Car, Clean Dust from Inside PC, Eat “Forbidden” Black Rice, Glue Almost Anything

I reviewed some of my smallish purchases of the past several months, and noted some ones that I still feel very good about, because they worked so well. I will share these here, along with appropriate Amazon link. These may be practical gifts for family/friend, or may be something you’d like to get for yourself.

( 1 ) Stoner “Tarminator” to safely remove sap and tar from car.    In search of shade in the searing summer heat, we sometimes park under a pine tree, which can drip sap on the car paint and windows. Removing the sap without harming the car finish is not so easy. The internet pointed me to this product, which has performed well. I spray some on a little folded part of a paper towel, and rub at sap with that. Stoner Car Care 91154 10-Ounce Tarminator Tar, Sap, and Asphalt Remover Safe on Automotive Paint and Chrome on Cars, Trucks, RVs, Motorcycles, and Boats, Pack of 1

( 2 ) Compressed gas to blow dust off laptop heat exchanger.  I got a warning message on my laptop that the fan was not functioning properly, and needed immediate attention. I think by that they meant the machine was overheating. It turns out that in your laptop there is a thick copper heat conductor that runs from your hot processing chip to the fan outlet on the side of your computer. The fan sucks air from the bottom of your PC, and blows it across a heat exchanger attached to the heat conductor. In time, dust can build up on this heat exchanger, and block the airflow.

Image: https://www.quora.com/How-can-I-clean-the-fans-in-my-Dell-Inspiron-15-5000-series?share=1

The “right” way to address this problem is to disassemble the laptop to expose this heat exchanger from the inside (as shown in picture above), and peel the lint off. Problem is with my particular PC, it is a huge, perilous task to do this disassembly. The internet told me of a hack solution, which is to shoot cleaning gas into the heat exchanger from the outside, to knock off at least some of this lint. See this YouTube video by “Ultimate DIY” for the technique. It seemed to work for me – I got a can of cleaning gas (below), shot it into my PC side outlet vent in various spots, and have had no fan or overheating warnings since. (I also tweaked my standby power settings so the fan does not run all day if I am not using the PC).

Falcon Dust, Off Compressed Gas (152a) Disposable Cleaning Duster, 1, Count, 3.5 oz Can (DPSJB),Black

( 3 ) Barge “rubber cement” to glue almost anything.  This stuff sticks really well – spread a thin coat on both surfaces, wait 10-15 minutes, press together, and leave for a few hours. Unlike most “superglues”, it will work on rough or porous surfaces, including situations like leather where flexibility is needed.

Barge All-Purpose TF Cement Rubber, Leather, Wood, Glass, Metal Glue 2 oz

( 4 ) Indulge in nutty taste, impressive appearance, and health lore of black rice. A couple of years ago I got some so-called “forbidden” (black) rice from an Asian gourmet outlet. (At one time this rice was so prized it was forbidden for anyone but the emperor to eat it).  It tasted great, but was ruinously costly. I have found similar rice on Amazon, imported from Italy. No cooking directions on the box, so here is what worked for me: Add 1 cup rice to 2 cups boiling water, simmer 20 minutes, and strain off excess water. Try it once:

Black Rice, Premium Quality, Product of Italy, Venere, All Natural, Ancient Grain, 1.1 lbs, Riso Scotti

( 5 ) Small indoor/outdoor play/crafts table with bench seats for 2-8 year old kids. This has worked well, especially for otherwise messy foods and activities. Give it away when your kids are done with it. See picture below. The sides and benches fold in, under the table, for storage or transport. Includes optional shade umbrella. Avoid the smaller version of this table, it would get outgrown immediately.

Little Tikes Easy Store Picnic Table with Umbrella, Multi Color, 42.00”L x 38.00”W x 19.75”H

Administration’s Drastic Drawdown of Strategic Petroleum Reserve Makes Us Vulnerable to Actual Oil Supply Shock

Although fracking technology has enabled renewed oil production in the U.S., the West remains heavily dependent on oil imports, especially from the Middle East. Even in the U.S., the current refining capacity is not well-matched to the type of light oil produced by fracking, so we still import oil (of types that our refineries can handle), although we also export fracked oil. Since oil remains the basis of so much economic activity, and since many oil exporting countries are unstable or even hostile to the U.S and our allies, the U.S. in 1975 established a large Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) to store up crude oil. The storage is mainly in caverns in Texas and Louisiana, dissolved out of underground salt deposits. It was mainly filled in the Reagan/Bush administrations in the late 1970’s, and topped up under Bush II around 2003-2004.

The statutory purpose of this stockpile is to protect us and our allies against a “a significant reduction in supply which is of significant scope and duration,” per the Department of Energy. If such an event occurs, leading to high prices and associated economic impact, the President is authorized to release oil from the SPR. However,

In no case may the Reserve be drawn down…

 (A) in excess of an aggregate of 30,000,000 barrels with respect to each such shortage;

(B) for more than 60 days with respect to each such shortage;

Somehow various administrations and also Congress have circumvented these restrictions on draining the SPR, and over the years have sold off bits and pieces to raise money for government spending. However, the current administration has decimated the SPR, selling off a third of it (some 200 million barrels), mostly in the past six months:

Source: U.S. EIA

The administration projects this gusher to stop after November. Essentially all objective observers recognize this as primarily a political move, to reduce gasoline prices in order to curry favor with voters for the mid-term elections this November. It’s one thing to knock the price of gasoline down from $5.00/gallon back in the spring, when the world was panicked about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but to keep on selling into a moderated market is irresponsible. We haven’t had an actual shortfall in supply these past few months. Among other things, Russia keeps happily pumping and selling, out into the global grey market.

I won’t belabor the point here (stay tuned for more posts on this subject), but the world is structurally short of oil. With this administration having spent its first year demonizing oil and oil companies, the petroleum industry is understandably cautious about making expensive investments in future oil production. They know they will be stabbed in the back as soon as the current party in power no longer needs them.

By dumping this oil now, the administration is making the U.S. and the West more vulnerable later, if there is an actual global oil supply crisis (think: Iran vs. Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf…). Irritated by the lowish oil prices engendered by the SPR release, OPEC just announced production cuts which will drive prices right back up. They can cut production far longer than we can drain the SPR. If this all motivates further investment in low CO2 energy (including nuclear), that is perhaps a good thing. But between now, and attaining a carbon-free utopia in the future, we need to keep the crude flowing. Let us hope for the best here.

Energy analyst Robert Rapier writes:

Ultimately, drawing down the SPR was a political decision. Think about it. An administration that has frequently emphasized the importance of reducing carbon emissions is trying to increase oil supplies to bring down rising oil prices — which will in turn help keep demand (and carbon emissions) high.

But even though the Biden Administration wants to address rising carbon emissions, high gasoline prices cause incumbents to lose elections. So, they try to tame gasoline prices even though it contradicts one of their key objectives of reducing carbon emissions.

The SPR has now been depleted since President Biden took office from 640 million barrels to 450 million barrels…

President Biden’s gamble to deplete the SPR in order to fight high oil prices may not hurt him at all. Of course, if for some reason we had a true supply emergency and found ourselves needing that oil, it would be looked upon as a terrible decision.

The Bank of England Bought Bonds Last Week to Keep UK Pension Funds from Imploding

The ups and downs of the U.S. stock market are largely driven by the degree to which the Federal Reserve makes easy money available. After (ridiculously) insisting for most of 2021 that inflation was merely “transitory”, chairman Powell has finally put on his big boy pants and started to attack the problem by raising short term interest rates, and (only now) starting to reduce the Fed’s holdings of bonds. Massive buying of bonds is termed “Quantitative Easing” (QE), and its opposite is known as “quantitative tightening” or QT. QT can be accomplished by outright sales of bonds into the open market, or (as the Fed is doing) simply letting bonds mature and not replacing them with purchases of new bonds.

The specter of Fed tightening drove stock prices down all year, to a low in June. Then a new mantra began to circulate on Wall Street, that the Fed would relent at the first sign of economic slowdown, and hence would “pivot” back to easy money (low interest rate) policies. Stocks enjoyed 15% rise until stern speeches from the Fed in August convinced the Street that the Fed was going to stay the course until inflation is broken, and so stocks slumped back down to their June lows. Other major central banks like the European Central Bank and the Bank of England have likewise pledged tighter money policies in order to curb inflation.

However, stocks had a short-lived rally last Wednesday, when the Bank of England intervened in the markets by buying up long-term bonds. Aha, the central banks are caving at last! QE is back!!

It turns out that the reason the BOE intervened was not because of tight money conditions affecting general employment and income. Rather, there was a specific, technical reason. Many pension funds in the UK had entered into so-called “liability-driven investments” (LDIs), which involve interest rate swap agreements. I won’t try to explain the mechanical details of these beyond showing one figure:

Source: https://twitter.com/MacroAlf/status/1575542737725968385

In a stable world, these instruments allow pension funds to take money that they would have invested in boring, stable, low-interest bonds, and allocate it to (hopefully) higher-yielding investments such as stocks. But there is a huge catch, involving posting collateral, which in turn involves margin calls if the market price of long term bonds declines (as always happens when long-term interest rates go up).

The world has become less stable in the past six months, particularly since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. UK finances are shaky in the base case, and a proposal by the new prime minister for an unfunded tax cut that would exacerbate the budget deficit pushed the markets over the edge. Yields on British government bonds (“gilts”) surged, which would have triggered forced disastrous selling of assets (margin calls) by the pension funds at ever-lower prices.  This death spiral would have imperiled the solvency of these nationally-important funds. See here and here for more explanations.

Typical commentary:

…according to Cardano Investment’s Kerrin Rosenberg, most UK pension funds “would have been wiped out” were it not for the bond buying.

“If there was no intervention today, gilt yields could have gone up to 7% to 8% from 4.5% this morning and in that situation around 90% of UK pension funds would have run out of collateral,” Rosenberg told The Financial Times.

Will other central banks be forced to abandon money-tightening because of imperiled pension funds? The consensus seems to be probably not. The UK funds had a relatively high exposure to these derivatives, and British finances are in worse shape than most other major economies. That said, this is a cautionary example of the vulnerabilities of cleverly engineered financial instruments. In the end, there is no free lunch.

Get Easy Government-Guaranteed 4% Interest on Your Money with Treasury Bills

The interest paid on most bank checking and savings account is still very low.  Bank of America is paying 0.01-0.04% (i.e., practically zero) on savings accounts, and 0.05% (still nearly zero) on a 10-month CD. You can get over 2%, but mainly by opening an account with some little outfit  you have never heard of. Money market funds are offering a little over 2%.

Courtesy of the Fed and its rate-raising, the interest on 6-12 month Treasury bills is now around 4%. Here is a graph of all Treasury bill/bonds (interest rate versus how long till bonds mature). So: Instead of leaving money in a bank account or in your broker’s money market fund, I suggest you take that money, transfer it to a brokerage account (e.g. at Vanguard or Schwab or Fidelity for low fees);  then use that money to buy T-bills. Most brokerages have a simple, automated process for doing that.  Below I will list the complete steps for doing this at Vanguard. (Buying other types of bonds might be more involved).

Example: I bought $10,000 worth of six-month T-bills a couple of days ago. I paid $9,824 for them now (in September, 2022). I can redeem them for their face value of $10,000 in March, 2023. That works out to an annualized interest rate of about 3.8%. (It would have been 4.0 % if I went for a 12-month T-bill). These short-term T-bills do not pay monthly or quarterly interest. You get your interest benefit by buying them at a discount to the face value.

No matter what interest rates or the economy does between now and March, Uncle Sam guarantees that I will get my $10,000. If I want to cash out before then, I can just sell some or all of my T-bill holdings back into the market. Again, no matter what happens, I can pretty well count on getting my full money back.

This is obviously a bit more trouble than just buying share in a bond mutual fund or exchange traded fund (ETF). Why go to this extra trouble? My big reason is that with a bond fund, its value can slosh up or (these days mainly) down by a significant percentage. So you might put $10,000 in today, and have it worth only $9,500 in a couple of months. I don’t mind stock prices flopping up and down, but not with bonds that I might want to cash in at any time.           

If you buy say a longer-term bond, say a five-year Treasury bond, yes, you are guaranteed to collect the full face value in five years, but if you want to sell it into the market a year from now, you may find that its market value has gone down (or up) compared to what you paid for it, if interest rates have changed in the meantime. This adds a layer of uncertainty in managing your money. That is why I am recommending shorter-term (typically 1-year) T-bills.

One other comment on money management: for money you don’t think you will need for at least a year, one of the best places to put it is in U.S. government I-series savings bonds. These I-bonds pay whatever is the prevailing inflation rate, e.g., are paying now 9.6% (!!!). That is an astonishingly high yield for a government guaranteed bond.  Bonus: the interest on I-bonds, like the interest on T-bills and other federal obligations, is typically exempt from state and municipal income taxes.

After holding an I-bond for at least a year, you can cash out at any time for the face value. (There is a modest interest rate penalty for redeeming in less than five years). There are two minor hitches with I-bonds. One is that you have to open a “Treasury Direct” account with the Treasury to purchase (and redeem) I-bonds. No big deal, just another account to monitor and make up a password for. The other hitch is that you can only buy up to $10,000 per year of I-bonds. That said, you should go make the extra effort and put the first $10,000 of your bond-type savings into I-bonds.

APPENDIX: HOW TO BUY TREASURY BILLS IN VANGUARD                           

Once you know how things flow, it only takes a few minutes to complete a purchase. Presumably other brokerages have similar procedures. ( There is a Treasury web site here which with a huge table of all T-bill maturities and current prices, but it’s probably easier to find what you are looking for in the Vanguard system).

( 1 ) On your main (“Holdings”)  display page for your account, choose Transact:

( 2 ) Select the “Trade Bonds or CDs” option

( 3 ) This will bring up a “Check rates and trade bonds” page. Choose your account you want to transact in, and click Continue.

( 4 ) Which brings you to the “Find brokered CDs and bonds” page. For 6-month T-Bills, click as marked in red below:

( 5 ) This brings you to the “Now, select which Treasury you want” page. For approximately six-month T-Bill , probably select the first one on the list (red arrow, below). As of trading day 9/23/2022, that one maturing 3/16/2023 was the closest to 6-months. Note that I paid $98.25 (per $100 face value) for this T-bill. It does not pay monthly interest, but it is guaranteed to be redeemed at $100 when it matures in six months. The effective annual interest rate on this transaction is 3.8%. After selecting which T-Bill, click Continue.

( 5  ) This brings you to the “Next, provide the amount you want to invest” page. Here you input how much money you put into this transaction. Since T-Bills come in denominations of $1000 or more, so you have to input thousand dollar amounts here. (e.g. $3000 or $12000, but not $4500).