Yes, yes. It’s another noon send out, but as ever it’s been a busy week and I’ve been working on a very special story that will be released on Monday, July 10 — which I’m hoping will more than compensate.
If there’s a specific theme that runs through this week’s newsletter it’s my growing contempt for the draconian and repressive anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing regime we live with, which I believe is doing little to curb crime or terrorism and everything to limit the freedoms and liberties of ordinary, honest people caught up in increasingly expanded dragnets.
I have a personal stake in the story. After decades fighting heroin addiction, my cousin – a beautiful Anglo-Polish girl who I always looked up to because I thought she could achieve anything, at least until addiction came her way — passed away this week. Most likely from an overdose. She was in her mid-40s and far too young to die.
Did the world’s anti-money laundering systems help her in any way? No, they did not. Drugs were always easily available to her, regardless, and, to the contrary, her chequered past meant she was unable to re-integrate into society because the grid simply would not have her. We take things like mobile phones for granted. But, for her, even getting a phone was a challenge because of her “system issues”. All of which made staying in touch with her even more difficult. Which made supporting her through her addiction even harder.
Given my cousin’s experience, I’ve often wondered if outsourcing the job of policing dodgy criminal activity to banks — who have no moral authority or specialisation in this area — was ever a good idea.
People rightly ask, of course, what’s the alternative? Should we just abandon the tracking of illicit funds? While it might sound mad, I increasingly think maybe that’s exactly what we should do. After all, if banks became neutral service providers again, focusing on credit evaluation rather than legitimacy of funds, then the world’s fraudsters, drug dealers and terrorists would not have to seek alternative off-grid systems or resort to corrupting the top levels of our corporate and political structure to be banked (a la Wirecard).
Banks would go about their way, turning a blind eye to the source of funds, but — if and when asked by authorities to give up data based on legwork and actual policing — would be able to provide that data on demand. But only, we should stress, if legitimate policing and judicial protocols had been followed, like ensuring that reasonable cause had been established to obtain warrants, and targets were treated as innocent until proven guilty.
Such a regime would reinstate incentives to do actually competent police work by specialists who understand the nuances of the law. It might be harder work, and deliver fewer hits. But the hits it did achieve would likely be top-tier, resulting in the “bad guys” actually being jailed — rather than just being unbanked — while in the process establishing precedents that put off others from engaging in similar activity.
Something to think about.
As usual, this week’s newsletter was compiled by Izabella Kaminska and Dario Garcia Giner. (Apologies for typos and formatting errors.)
Bull in a China shop:
- Italian academic Francesco Sassi set out the case that China’s recent decision to restrict critical mineral exports (germanium and gallium) to the West would adversely impact Europe’s decarbonisation strategy.
- Andrew Hale made the case that Imperial China’s trillion-dollar defaulted sovereign debt should be leveraged to force the country to comply with Western standards of business practice or to reduce the overall size of the US debt vis-a-vis the one-party communist state.
- The People’s Bank of China said it was looking to open the onshore repurchase agreements market to foreign investors to improve liquidity and risk management, even as the CNY continued its decline against the dollar.
- The People’s Bank of China said it would fine Ant Group $1.1 bn for violating laws and regulations in areas including corporate governance, financial consumer protection, payment and settlement business, as well as anti-money laundering obligations. The fine comes as publicly
humiliatedside-lined former chief exec Jack Ma, who spent years on the down-low following the PBOC crackdown was, this week, spotted visiting Pakistan.
- The WSJ reported Ant group will now give investors the opportunity to cash out via a $6bn buyback.
- A months-long investigation by Michael Shellenberger’s Environmental Progress, in collaboration with The Blind Spot, revealed that solar panels may be much more carbon-intensive than experts care to admit because nobody has bothered to properly evaluate or verify the data out of China.
Not only does the Chinese photovoltaic industry disproportionately rely on coal, it turns out the brainiacs who compile the carbon intensity stats of solar panels that influence net-zero policies the world over have no idea by how much. This is because they are operating entirely on guesswork and Western assumptions.
Simply put: There is a massive data black hole at the heart of the industry, as well as an over-dependence on a small number of data gatekeepers and their extremely opaque datasets. A credit to C.P. Collum, who did the heavy-lifting on the story. — IK .
Economics, business, finance, and more:
- Former UK Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng told The Telegraph he “didn’t resign”, he “was removed”.
While Kwarteng regrets the way his time in No 11 ended, he was unrepentant about a course of action that some have argued cost the country over £30 billion.
He told the paper: “Liz is absolutely 100 per cent right, that if you’re not growing the economy, you can’t pay for an ever-expanding welfare state. Ultimately, if your spending is going up 3 per cent, and your economy is growing at 0.5 per cent a year, more of your wealth goes into spending. And you’d have to tax more to cover that. It’s a doom loop.”
Kwarteng also offered two good points about lockdown and government intervention.
First, he noted, he was surprised there had been “so little focus on the impact of lockdown on the economy”. (That goes for us too.) Second, he warned, government interventions have left behind a legacy of dependency on the state that threatens to persist for a decade.
This could be why the Bank of England is struggling to put a lid on inflation. There’s a growing public expectation that if and when things get too tough, the government will come along with large-scale fiscal rescue packages. Why cut back on discretionary spending if you think the government will intervene before your mortgage payments get too unaffordable? — IK
- Martin Walker interviewed friend of the Blind Spot Robert McCauley on behalf of the London School of Economics about his latest update to “Manias, Panics and Crashes: a History of Financial Crises”. McCauley, who held senior positions at the Fed and the BIS, spoke on whether our understanding of financial crises has improved or not.
- Bank of America revealed a $100bn paper loss after betting big on the sovereign bond market three years ago, as it pumped most of the $670bn in pandemic-era deposit inflows into overpriced debt markets. The structure of the losses is reminiscent of what brought down Silicon Valley Bank in March.
- Former BoE central banker, Andy Haldane, argued in the Financial Times that it doesn’t always make sense to target a 2 percent inflation rate. And so did Aurora Macro’s Dimitris Valatsas in Monday’s Central Banker (in a piece commissioned long before Haldane’s piece was published).
- Crypto trading giant Binance appeared to be in a state of unravelling.
- Bloomberg’s Javier Blas was the latest to draw attention to Germany’s industrial decline. (Except, as we noted last week, the official narrative remains that this is by design. You can’t leap forwards and transform your economy into a green growth powerhouse without going backwards first. Or so they are increasingly saying — IK)
- Perre Andurand’s corrected Twitter on assertions that bad bets on higher oil prices in 2023 had driven losses in excess of $1bn at his fund.
- Former UBS Libor trader Tom Hayes, who served five and a half years in prison after being convicted for rigging the benchmark rate, won the right to take his case back to the UK Court of Appeal. He won’t be able to get compensation for time already served, but he will be able to clear his name.
For those who missed it, here’s our Leaked Lunch podcast with Tom from earlier this year. — IK
- The Bank of England waded into the gender identity debate, with a post indicating that people of any gender can be pregnant. The Bank also offered to help its staff pay for their gender reassignment treatments. It did not reveal if it identified as transitory, though.
- YouTuber Konstantin Kisin and journalist Paul Mason locked horns over the great unbanking of Nigel Farage this week, with Mason arguing that the banks were ultimately enforcing sound banking regulations with their actions.
- But City minister Andrew Griffith stressed that holders of banking licences should not be allowed to curtail an individual’s freedom of expression via unbanking, alongside other declarations that tackled increasingly authoritarian measures taken by financial institutions.
- If you missed my story on the great Nigel Farage unbanking affair, you can re-read it here.
There are three main things to note about the drama. 1) Civil liberty campaigners are right to be concerned, because the problem is likely to extend far beyond the Politically Exposed Person category. 2) The banks might not even be the baddies in all this. The real culprit is likely the Financial Action Task Force and the related money laundering regime, which Paul Mason is so keen to defend. 3) CBDCs are only going to make this stuff worse.
In the course of researching the story, I spoke to a number of specialists, and am surer than ever that the FATF money laundering regime is a total disaster for any forward-thinking democratic society and must be unwound as soon as possible. Consider what has the FATF actually delivered in more than 30 years of pushing through ever more stringent anti-money laundering? Are we any closer to solving the scourge of drug abuse and trade? Have we got rid of corruption? Have we managed to debilitate any of the actual bad guys? No. All those things are at record levels, despite the increasingly eye-watering sums that banks are being forced to spend on internal compliance systems to enforce such rules.
What’s more, to keep up with the never-ending Sisyphean task that is AML and KYC policing, banks are outsourcing ever more decision-making to “regtech” and “suptech” algorithms. But these are blunt-edged tools that are unable to deal with the nuance of human experience. The result is a “computer says no” framework, which ensures anyone who doesn’t satisfy the cookie-cutter definition of riskless, too often ends up as unbanked collateral damage or assigned to “enhanced due diligence” and continuous monitoring.
The complexity of the algorithms, meanwhile, means that the banks themselves often can’t define the issues that flag customers for unbanking. Those that do get assigned for “media screening” end up having their personal banking fate determined by Google.
And that’s before we get to the specific absurdities related to the PEP regime, which quite rightly has had many in the House of Lords up in arms.
A Lords debate over the implementation of the Financial Services and Markets bill in June revealed an endless array of heartless and illogical banking issues that members of the Lords have had to deal with ever since becoming Lords, with most of their families also affected.
As fintech expert David Birch told me, you can’t really blame the banks:
“Why take a risk on giving an account to the daughter of an MP, who runs a donkey sanctuary, when it may subsequently turn out that the donations to the donkey sanctuary come from agents of a foreign power. If you’re going to earn £100 in profit over the lifetime of the donkey sanctuary account, but you run the risk of a one in 10,000 chance that the MP turns out to be a wrong ‘un and you get fined 10 million quid then your shareholders will be up in arms, and rightly so. The only economically sensible course of action for the bank is to refuse the account.”
He’s right. Which is why it’s not the banks that are really at fault. The main culprit is the FATF system, which operates under a murky international framework that makes the subjective criteria governing who scores highly in a Miss World pageant look sound in comparison.
Why FATF needs to be revised.
Under the system, countries jostle for higher standing in the FATF ranking system by trying to appeal to fellow member sensibilities who vote on their respective standing. In theory, countries that best adhere to FATF recommended standards, like having domestic laws that criminalise money laundering or terrorist financing, score highest and avoid the dreaded grey list. In reality, countries use the system to horse-trade their way to power, leading to absurd categorisations.
As one expert from a British think tank told me: “That’s the fascinating thing about FATF, there is no international convention. It’s one of the huge legitimacy problems of the regime. None of these standards are even legally binding. Unlike other treaties, this has much more power, but countries go above and beyond to do well on the evaluation because going on the grey list has a big impact.”
Member countries evaluate each other, but, as my source noted, there’s very little technical or objective about it. It’s all highly political and subjective because what constitutes good AML practice, like beauty or a Eurovision song, is mostly in the eye of the beholder.
The unintended consequences of the legislation are all too often swept under the carpet. Key to this is the belated realisation by the FATF that the definition of what constitutes “domestic extremism” or “terrorism” is often set far too broadly, allowing authoritarian regimes to use AML rules as a cover to shut down domestic political opposition or dissent.
Luckily, in the UK, the government appears to be listening to those complaining the system is ripe for abuse. Toby Young, founder of the free speech union, told me that after having his Paypal accounts shut down arbitrarily last year, he has been leading a campaign to force an amendment through the Financial Services and Markets Act to force banks to give people at least 60 days notice before losing their accounts, as well as a solid reason why.
People, businesses and non-profits must also be able to sue banks that undermine their lawful right to free expression. One of the problems with the old regime, Young noted, was that it was impossible for a business to use the Equality Act to sue banks that shut off services for political reasons.
The government is expected to bring in such an amendment by next year.
Over in the EU, however, things are very different. Brussels is ploughing ahead with the creation of a massive new Anti-Money Laundering Authority (AMLA), which will appoint a gazillion technocrats to manage all that “enhanced due diligence”. As the EU itself describes the facility:
“The AMLA would be the centre of an integrated system composed of the authority itself and the national authorities with an AML/CFT supervisory mandate. It would also support EU financial intelligence units (FIUs) and establish a cooperation mechanism among them.”
It’s ironic that it’s the Germans (historic home of Wirecard, and erm, the Stasi) are among those vying to house the facility..
- The Telegraph reported that Rishi Sunak’s Britcoin currency ‘could be used to check ages and nationalities’.
What Blind Spot readers need to know is that there are a gazillion fintechs working in some sort of advisory role on the many different proofs of concepts and/or studies into central bank digital currencies. All of them regularly dispatch press releases on the back of minor developments so as to come across as more influential in these projects than they really are. They all have a vested interest in CBDCs moving ahead, and many of them — because they’re solution-minded tech people – don’t stop to think about the wider socio-economic implications of what they are proposing. A good example is the following sentence of the story.
“Alastair Johnson, founder of Nuggets, said that consumers could choose to share personal data with a shop when they buy certain items, such as to speed up age checks on cigarettes and alcohol.”
That either speaks to Alastair Johnson’s gross naivety, or implies an intentional desire to mislead the public. Anyone with half a brain cell knows that this sort of structure isn’t going to empower the consumer in any shape or form. Nobody voluntarily “chooses to share personal data” with a shop without a catch. The catch used to be discounted services or deals. Now it’s identity verification just to get access to goods. But, eventually, that could be the requirement to prove you aren’t a member of the Reform Party. — IK
- The Taliban launched “the most successful counter-narcotics effort in human history” after its nationwide ban on poppy production succeeded in significantly denting opium exports.
While logic would suggest the Taliban’s aggressive moves to counter poppy production stem from its Islamic form of government, the Telegraph argues the real motivation was the Taliban’s desire to gain international credibility.
Afghanistan’s rural economy has relied on poppy production for centuries. Waves of previous bans, such as the Taliban’s original government ban and the following American-backed Kabul government’s ban, proved largely ineffective.
Even this novel ban by the Taliban, imposed just after the religious militia regained power in April 2022, didn’t seem headed for success at first. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported in 2022 that opium crop cultivation had soared by almost a third.
And yet, somehow, things have turned around. Grame Smith from Crisis Group claimed the crackdown has been “the most successful counter-narcotics effort in human history”. The striking point from the article is that the success has less with Islamic repression and much more to do with rebranding.
“The ban on poppies by the Taliban is not a Shari’a decision, but rather a political interaction with the international community,” said a tribal leader form Helmand provide.
This makes sense in the context of Afghanistan’s substandard post-2001 economic development, which has been limited by an overdependence on capital-intensive projects centred around mining or production facilities, often using expat workers or based in urban areas.
A hair’s breadth thus continues to separate most of Afghanistan’s rural, low-intensity farmers from starvation, as it did in most realms before the industrial and agrarian revolutions. Naturally, the Taliban understand this all too well.
What is clear is that satellite imagery supports the story. The changes to production patterns do seem to be dramatic. Though it remains to be seen how permanent such a cultivation pattern will be in the midst of soaring inflation and a struggling real economy.
So what’s really behind the decision to carry out a generation-defining poppy ban?
Welcome to the trans-Caspian politics of gas. In June 13, 2023 Pakistan announced the restoration of talks with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan on a stalled natural gas pipeline project called the $15bn Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) natural gas pipeline project.
The political angle of this pipeline appeared to be somewhat unclear. Islamabad announced the project had a new tie-in with Russia, which is reportedly considering the reversal of some underused gas pipelines between it and Turkmenistan to share gas flows with Turkmengaz, the Turkmenistani gas producer, towards both Europe and India. If older plans are dusted off, these Caspian gas flows could even reach into China, expanding the capacity of gas pipelines between the Asian countries that are already hitting capacity. However, this project was never a Russia/China project, but an American-backed one.
The United States has been a supporter of the TAPI pipeline for almost 30 years, but there appears to have been radio silence from the current administration on the current Russia-China-friendly shape the TAPI pipeline is taking.
Not necessarily related, but it is worth reminding about the linkages between the Biden adminstration and attempts, as the FT reported, to skim millions off central Asia’s other mega pipeline project: the Asia Gas Pipeline, which would take gas from Turkmenistan, via Kazakhstan, to China.
Which leads us to wonder: is Afghani poppy production being cut to raise the Taliban’s international legitimacy in the face of potentially large sums of international capital investment? Or, is the TAPI pipeline an example of Western interests turning a blind eye to necessary economic compromises, or are temperatures privately rising again?
Let’s hope that Western gaskets aren’t privately being blown behind the scenes. Foreign government tend to get toppled when they do.
Either way, the new great game seems to be on. — DGG
- The European Union said it was investigating whether it was feasible to block out the sun to deflect its rays in a bid to influence weather patterns on Earth.
- BlackRock boss Larry Fink said the term, ESG, had become so politicised he would no longer be using it. At the same time, he revealed some A+ Bitcoin bro credentials when he argued the future would only get more inflationary and that bitcoin was the new gold.
- Dutch politicians claimed that Twitter was unsuited for emergency broadcasts after tech mishaps occurred during flooding in the country.
- Michael Shellenberger called out UK MP Damian Collins, who used the pretext of protecting children online to support widespread police surveillance of online users.
- Individuals found a way to torture telemarketers by throwing specially crafted phone bots at them which simulate distracted elderly individuals who can keep telemarketers on the phone forever.
- Pro-meritocracy campaigner and schoolteacher Katherine Birbalsingh got in a spat with MP Jess Philips, after she targeted Birbalsingh’s comments surrounding domestic violence over a tweet the schoolteacher had quickly regretted and deleted, prompting calls the MP had engaged in cyberbullying.
- The Shawn Ryan show, aka the youtube channel of choice for soldiers of fortune everywhere, sat down with actor and producer Jim Caviezel, best known for playing Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ”. The duo discussed Caviezel’s controversial career to date as well as his latest film The Sound of Freedom, which offers a harsh look into the world of child trafficking. They also discussed how his choices have negatively affected his Hollywood career.
- The Biden administration said it would appeal a federal judge’s ruling stopping the White House from communicating with social media companies in a bid to get unfavourable voices censored.
Geopolitical hot spots:
- In light of the French riots, here’s a throwback to a Foreign Policy piece by Bart Szewcyk, a fellow at the German Marshall fund, about how Macron was blocking EU strategy on Russia and China. The May piece explored how France’s push for strategic autonomy was challenging the United States’ efforts to isolate Russia and China.
- Andrew Neil described Poland as Europe’s rising power, while noting the country was rearming at a breathtaking pace.
- Former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk engaged in an awkward volte-face on migration policy, arguing Poland must retake control of its borders after the Kaczynski government let in too many migrants from countries like Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Iran.
- Russia shuttered Prigozhin’s media outlet, Patriot Media, and affiliated networks, following the collapse of Wagner’s curious uprising two weeks ago.
What the heck’s been going on with Prigozhin? Our readers can be excused for their confusion; so are we.
The past few weeks have been marked by contradictory messages regarding his whereabouts. The key questions which emerge make one question what the future of Wagner, Prigozhin, and consequently Putin’s Russia, may be.
The first news we heard of Prigozhin after his failed mutiny was that the Wagner leader had moved to Belarus while his organisation had been subsumed into the Russian Army. Arrest warrants that had been issued for Prigozhin were allegedly dropped in return.
But later news confused the picture. It turned out the arrest warrants had never been dropped. Then pictures upon pictures of Prigozhin’s lavish home started appearing online, no doubt leaked by the Russian authorities themselves. And then there were the hilarious Sacha Baron Cohen-esque disguises.
These images came as satellite imagery seemed to prove a military camp was being developed in Belarus, with Belarusian guerillas and official suggesting it was to house Wagner fighters.
But not everything is what it seems. Russian media have echoed recent claims that Prigozhin has actually been spotted in St. Petersburg, which Belarusian President Lukashenko has confirmed. “He is in St. Petersburg. Or maybe this morning he would travel to Moscow or elsewhere. But he is not on the territory of Belarus now,” he was widely reported as saying.
And subsequent reports have claimed no Wagner official has come to check on the Belarusian camps. Similarly contradicting reports abound online regarding Prigozhin’s assasination, with some Ukrainian and international sources claiming that a hit has already been ordered, or that Putin could not afford to kill Prigozhin.
Whatever seems to be happening, the question of Wagner’s continued existence is less in question than that of its future independence.
An excellent chronological summary of Wagner on MondAfrique reminded viewers that Wagner’s primary role relied on strengthening Russia’s foreign policy arm, with greater bureaucratic and geopolitical leeway than a foreign mission of the Russian Army would. Ensuring the integrity of state security around the oil and gas fields of Haftar’s Libya, or the Russian military port in Tartous, are key elements of Russian muscle abroad. The article outlined the obvious: that Russia’s leadership cannot allow the useful Wagner organisation to fall into disrepair, especially its foreign components.
The crucial question regarding Wagner’s independence is less clear and centres on the agency of Prigozhin in the affair. As expressed on previous pieces, Russian politics is like a bear fight at night. You don’t know what’s happening until you find the dead bodies in the morning.
Thus, we can only speculate as to the outcome.
Firstly, to what extent was an individual like Prigozhin key for the functioning (and mutiny) of Wagner? If history proves anything, it is that single individuals are rarely essential. If Prigozhin was the problem child, his cauterisation via elimination could mean Putin’s Russia may move on from this faster than expected.
Secondly, to what extent is the problem at Wagner Prigozhin? It could well be that Wagnerites were not just pushed to rebellion by Prigozhin, but rather that an internal Russian anti-Putin node coalesced around Prigozhin’s growing power. One is reminded of Catherine the Great’s probable murder of the innocent infant Ivan VI, whose only crime was being the legitimate inheritor to the Russian throne. This sort of subterfuge is a typical element of Russian imperial drama, such as when the Russian elite conspired around Catherine in a successful plot to murder and overthrow her own husband, then Tsar Peter III. Indeed, this possibility seems more likely as suggested by our cursory understanding of Russian history.
Other questions from counter-current commentators, as well as Russian state-run media, have speculated that Western intelligence played a key role in bringing Prigozhin to mutiny, and that Putin and Prigozhin are still buddy-buddy behind the scenes. This feels superficial. It ignores that in a state like Russia, no challenge such as the one launched by Prigozhin could exist in a vacuum. That a strike against the king was not immediately met with crushing power seems a clear indication something is amiss, whatever hand the West had in the affair.
That is not to say Russian rulers have not benefitted from rare partnerships with powerful internal allies. But these have often relied on extraordinary interpersonal dynamics. Catherine the Great’s regional dispensations to her ex-lover Potemkin, who was effectively allowed to rule over Southern Russia and the newly conquered territory from the Ottomans as a tsar in everything but name, proved one of the wisest measures of her rule. Another would have been Trotsky’s extraordinary accumulation of military and political power during the Russian civil war under Lenin’s command and friendship.
For so long, it seemed like Prigozhin could have been a new Potemkin. Alas, these events suggest the entire Putin-Prigozhin alliance may have been little more than a Potemkin village. The following weeks will be crucial in revealing to what extent June 2023 was a nadir in internal Russian politics.
- Former American officials in Moscow have been holding secret Ukraine talks with prominent Russian officials, including Sergei Lavrov. NBC News reported these talks aimed to lay the groundwork for negotiations to end the war.
- A forced Hazmat evacuation of the White House was issued after cocaine was found in the White House library, just two days after Hunter Biden had visited his father.
- Robert Kennedy Jr. had thoughts about the White House announcement last Friday which outlined that President Biden will be keeping some parts of the JFK assassination classified indefinitely.
- Jean-Luc Melenchon and other left-wing French figures condemned a strongly-worded manifesto by French police unions calling for a forced end to the “savage hordes” that have been rioting in French streets over the murder of a teenage boy by a policeman.
- French lawmakers have agreed to a justice reform bill that would grant police the power to harvest suspects‘ geolocation through their phones and other electronic devices. The bill was passed by 80 votes versus 24 against.
Covid collateral damage:
- The vice director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology admitted the laboratory was handed four strains of lab-grown coronaviruses in early 2019 and was tasked with selecting the most infectious one. The Director then claimed several colleagues appeared to behave suspiciously at the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan, suggesting they used one of these strains to infect individuals at the military festival.