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Founder of failed crypto exchange FTX apologises to ex-employees

Source image: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/nov/23/founder-of-failed-crypto-exchange-ftx-apologises-to-ex-employees-sam-bankman-fried

The founder of the failed crypto exchange FTX has written to its former employees apologising for his role in its collapse and continuing to insist its downfall can be solely explained by a misplaced $8bn (£6.7bn).

In the letter, first published by the industry news site CoinDesk, Sam Bankman-Fried wrote: “I deeply regret my oversight failure. In retrospect, I wish that we had done many many things differently … I’m going to do what I can to make it up to you guys – and to the customers – even if that takes the rest of my life.”

Despite the mea culpa, however, Bankman-Fried said that the company was salvageable, and that if he had not been pressed into filing for bankruptcy in mid-November he could have saved it.

“We likely could have raised significant funding,” he wrote. “Potential interest in billions of dollars of funding came in roughly eight minutes after I signed the chapter 11 docs. Between those funds, the billions of dollars of collateral the company still held, and the interest we’d received from other parties, I think that we probably could have returned large value to customers and saved the business.

“An extreme amount of coordinated pressure came, out of desperation, to file for bankruptcy for all of FTX – even entities that were solvent – and despite other jurisdictions’ claims … I reluctantly gave in to that pressure, even though I should have known better; I wish I had listened to those of you who saw and still see value in the platform, which was and is my belief as well.”

In the letter, Bankman-Fried reiterated claims that FTX was a fundamentally healthy business, presenting a narrative of its downfall that showed it with assets of $60bn, against only $2bn of liabilities, as recently as this spring.

Since then, he says, two crashes in crypto markets led to its assets dropping in value, even as more customers fled to the platform. In November, its assets had fallen to $17bn, before “a run on the bank” resulted in $8bn of withdrawals in a few days.

The coup-de-grace, he said, was discovering a further $8bn of liabilities because of old cash deposits from “before FTX had bank accounts”. Bankman-Fried had previously explained in messages to Vox journalist Kelsey Piper that those debts had been forgotten about for years.

They existed because the company used to ask users to wire funds to the bank account of the group’s hedge fund Alameda Research, where deep-rooted mismanagement resulted in billions of dollars of cash being waylaid.

Bankman-Fried didn’t directly address the involvement of Alameda in his note to employees, glossing over the source of the confusion, and also not mentioning the inciting incident of the November bank run: the discovery that Alameda’s solvency rested on billions of dollars worth of a token, FTT, that FTX printed itself, and which had no deeper value beyond the promise of FTX to effectively pay dividends to holders.

“I never intended this to happen,” Bankman-Fried wrote. “I did not realise the full extent of the margin position, nor did I realise the magnitude of the risk posed by a hyper-correlated crash.”

However, the exculpatory tale presented by the former CEO – who was replaced in mid-November by John J Ray III, the bankruptcy specialist who oversaw the winding up of Enron 20 years ago and has said FTX is the worst case he has seen – has been criticised by observers.

Bankman-Fried presents the company’s finances “marking everything to market, regardless of liquidity” – assuming that the huge deposits of crypto assets that FTX holds can be sold at something approaching market prices.

For large markets such as bitcoin or ethereum, that assumption may be true. However, FTX has denominated billions of dollars of its assets in tokens, such as FTT and serum, that it controls. According to a balance sheet prepared by Bankman-Fried shortly before FTX’s bankruptcy, $2.5bn of the company’s assets were in tokens FTX had created, which had a total market cap of a fraction of that sum.

Delaware bankruptcy court heard on Tuesday how the former chief executive had run FTX as his “personal fiefdom”. Lawyers for the company told the court that 8% of the FTX group’s customers were based in the UK, representing about 80,000 unsecured creditors.

Most of those customers are believed to be corporate clients and investment professionals, using the lightly regulated FTX International exchange to make risky leveraged bets on cryptocurrency values.

After the collapse of FTX, the online bank Starling announced a seven-month suspension of all customer deposits to cryptocurrency exchanges, citing the risk to consumers. The suspension would be reviewed in June 2023, the bank said.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2022/nov/23/founder-of-failed-crypto-exchange-ftx-apologises-to-ex-employees-sam-bankman-fried

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World’s biggest investment fund warns directors to tackle climate crisis or face sack

Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the world’s single largest investor, has warned company directors it will vote against their re-election to the board if they do not up their game on tackling the climate crisis, human rights abuses and boardroom diversity.

Carine Smith Ihenacho, the chief governance and compliance officer of Norges Bank Investment Management, which manages more than 13tn Norwegian kroner (£1tn) on behalf of the Norwegian people, said the fund was preparing to vote against the re-election of at least 80 company boards for failing to set or hit environmental or social targets.

Established in the 1990s to invest surplus profits from Norway’s huge oil and gas reserves, it is the world’s largest sovereign fund, controlling an average of 1.3% of 9,338 companies across 70 countries. Large holdings include Apple, Nestlé, Microsoft and Samsung.

“We all know, we live in a world with a climate crisis, and we have a role to play and then companies have a role to play,” Smith Ihenacho said. “So we have stepped up our expectations towards the companies when it comes to setting targets to get to that net zero [emissions] by 2050 target. And we will push the companies more in setting targets and understanding how they’re going to get there.”

It comes as the prime minister of Norway, Jonas Gahr Støre, bowed to public pressure to release more money from its oil profits to help support Ukraine. The country donated 10bn kroner in civilian and military aid last year.

“We are in a situation where we have room for action due to extraordinary income from the petroleum sector,” he said. “We are now stepping up this aid. We will contribute even more to the repair and reconstruction of damaged infrastructure.”

The fund, which holds the equivalent of about 2.4m kroner ($240,000 or £200,000) for each man, woman and child in Norway, invests parts of the large profits generated by the Norwegian petroleum sector, mainly from taxes of companies but also payment for licences to explore for oil as well as the State’s Direct Financial Interest and dividends from the partly state-owned energy giant Equinor.

Smith Ihenacho said the fund, which this week recorded a loss of 1.64tn kroner for 2022, expected all large carbon emitters to set emissions targets now, and all other smaller companies to have done so no later than 2040. “We also want companies to publish scenarios including [what happens if temperatures rise by] 1.5C so we can actually understand how they are going to get there.”

She said only 17% of the more than 9,000 companies that the fund invests in had set “clear science-based net zero targets”, and the fund is actively “pushing” the remaining 83% to act fast to set their targets.

“If the companies are totally unresponsive to what we say, we have to step up,” she said. “What we’ve done so far for, let’s say, the worst companies – those that don’t even have any targets, no reporting around climate risk – we have started to vote against the board as we say the board is really accountable for this.”

It led the fund to vote against the entire board of 18 companies last year and Smith Ihenacho warned that in the coming spring AGM season there would be a “big step up in how we vote against board members”.

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She said the fund would vote against at least 80 companies in the next few months.

Smith Ihenacho said that if there was still no improvement the fund may sell its stake in the companies.

“We want to support and push the company through the transition to a low-carbon economy, we don’t see selling as going to solve the climate crisis,” she said. “But in the end, we may do that with some companies and we have already sold out to quite a few companies that we just believe have an unsustainable business model when it comes to climate.”

She said the fund was also taking a more active approach to tackling a company’s record on human rights, excessive executive pay, tax transparency, and boardroom diversity.

Last month, the fund excluded two companies – China’s AviChina Industry & Technology and India’s Bharat Electronics – due to “unacceptable risk that the companies are selling weapons” for use by the military in Myanmar.

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US adds 517,000 jobs in January in huge gain for labor market

The US job market added 517,000 jobs in January, a huge gain for the labor market even as the Federal Reserve has pushed up interest rates to bring down inflation and try to temper hiring.

Meanwhile, the unemployment rate has held relatively steady at 3.4% – a 0.1% decrease compared with last month. Economists had expected the unemployment rate to rise slightly last month, but the rate still remains on par with what was seen before the pandemic. The rate is a 53-year low, according to Bloomberg.

Far higher than what economists expected – estimates put the job increase at 185,000 – January’s growth in the job market is an acceleration of activity in the job market which, while showing signs of cooling at the end of last year, is still growing. December saw 223,000 jobs added to the labor market that, while still an overall increase, was lower than the average 539,000 new jobs a month that were being added at the beginning of 2022.

Job increases were seen across the board, led by leisure and hospitality, retail, healthcare and professional and business services.

Predictions that the labor market was cooling was led by multiple data points published this week that showed jobs were being added to the economy, but at a slower pace than previous months. ADP, the US’s largest payroll supplier, reported on Wednesday that private employers added 106,000 jobs in January, less than half the jobs that were added by private employers in December.

ADP partly attributed the slowdown to poor weather interrupting work in December, according to ADP.

“In January, we saw the impact of weather-related disruptions on employment during our reference week,” the ADP chief economist, Nela Richardson, said in a statement. “Hiring was stronger during other weeks of the month, in line with the strength we saw late last year.”

Meanwhile, the labor department released data this week that showed a continued rise in job vacancies in December, with 11m job openings last month compared with 10.4m in December.

The recent figures show resilience in the job market even as the Fed continues to hike interest rates to bring down record levels of inflation.

Inflation finally started to ease in the second half of last year, with the inflation rate reaching 6.5% in December and the month-over-month cost of living dropping for the first time since May 2020. On Wednesday, the Fed increased interest rates by a quarter point – its smallest increase since it started raising rates last March – raising interest rates to 4.5% to 4.75%.

The Fed chair, Jerome Powell, indicated on Wednesday that despite the decrease in inflation, the central bank will continue to increase rates “a couple more” times in the future as it looks to bring down inflation even more.

“I would say it is a good thing the disinflation we have so far has not come at the expense of a weaker labor market,” Powell said on Wednesday. “But I would say the inflationary process you see under way is really at an early stage.

“We covered a lot of ground, and the full effects of our rapid tightening so far are yet to be felt. Even so, we have more work to do.”

There are some signs that the labor market could tighten more in the coming months. Amid layoffs from tech firms like Amazon, Meta and Google, employment firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas reported an increase in job cuts in January, with cuts rising to 102,943 in January, up from 43,651 cuts in December.

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Calls for bigger windfall tax after Shell makes ‘obscene’ $40bn profit

The government is under pressure to rethink its windfall tax on energy companies after Shell reported one of the largest profits in UK corporate history, with the surge in energy prices sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushing the oil company’s annual takings to $40bn (£32bn).

Opposition parties and trade unions described Shell’s bonanza, the biggest in its 115 year history, as “outrageous” and accused Rishi Sunak of letting fossil fuel companies “off the hook”.

On Thursday, the UK headquartered company confirmed it had paid just $134m in British windfall taxes during 2022. It paid $520m under the EU “solidarity contribution” – Europe’s equivalent of the windfall tax.

The company was criticised in October when it said it had paid no UK windfall tax up to that point, but on Wednesday said it was likely to contribute $500m in 2023.

Boosted by record oil and gas prices, Shell posted profits of almost $10bn in the final quarter of last year, taking its annual adjusted profits to $40bn in 2022, far outstripping the $19bn notched up in 2021.

Shell profits

The performance puts Shell on a par with the £38bn British American Tobacco made in 2017, but still behind the £60bn Vodaphone achieved in 2014, when the telecoms group sold its US business.

The shadow climate change secretary, Ed Miliband, said: “As the British people face an energy price hike of 40% in April, the government is letting the fossil fuel companies making bumper profits off the hook with their refusal to implement a proper windfall tax.”

Miliband added: “Labour would stop the energy price cap going up in April, because it is only right that the companies making unexpected windfall profits from the proceeds of war pay their fair share.”

The Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, said: “No company should be making these kind of outrageous profits out of [Vladimir] Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

“Rishi Sunak was warned as chancellor and now as prime minister that we need a proper windfall tax on companies like Shell and he has failed to take action.”

Paul Nowak, the general secretary of the TUC, said the profits were “obscene” and “an insult to working families”.

The step up in Shell and its competitors’ profits during 2022 prompted the government to introduce a windfall tax on North Sea operators, which was later toughened by the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt.

Nowak said windfall taxes should be increased. “As households up and down Britain struggle to pay their bills and make ends meet, Shell are enjoying a cash bonanza. The time for excuses is over. The government must impose a larger windfall tax on energy companies. Billions are being left on the table,” he said.

“Instead of holding down the pay of paramedics, teachers, firefighters and millions of other hard-pressed public servants, ministers should be making big 0il and gas pay their fair share.”

Shell has benefited from a surge in oil prices caused by embargoes on Russian oil imposed since the invasion of Ukraine, and Russia’s decision to cut off gas supplies to continental Europe.

Analysts had expected Shell’s new chief executive, Wael Sawan, to report adjusted earnings of $7.97bn for the fourth quarter and $38.17bn for the year, in his City debut. It represented an increase on the $9.45bn registered in the third quarter, aided by a bounceback in earnings from its liquefied natural gas trading arm.

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Sunak’s official spokesperson said No 10 was aware the public would view Shell’s profits as extraordinarily high, which was why the government had introduced its windfall tax comparable to those seen in other countries, he added.

“We think it [the profits levy] strikes a balance between funding cost of living support while encouraging investment in order to bolster the UK’s energy security,” they said. “We have made it clear that we want to encourage reinvestment of the sector’s profits to support the economy, jobs and energy security, and that’s why the more investment a firm makes into the UK the less tax they will pay.”

Sawan announced a boost in payouts to shareholders, with a 15% increase in the final quarter dividend to $6.3bn.

He also announced $4bn of share buybacks over the next three months. In total, Shell distributed $26bn to shareholders in 2022.

Asked how it felt to make huge profits while people struggle with their bills, Sawan said: “These are incredibly difficult times, we’re seeing inflation rampant around the world … When I go back home to Lebanon some of the challenges I see people going through, sometimes without electricity for a full day, are the the challenges that we see in many, many parts of the world. The answer to that is to make sure we provide energy to the world.”

Shell has also been accused of overstating how much it is spending on renewable energy, and faced calls this week to be investigated and potentially fined by the US financial regulator.

Shell invested $25bn overall during 2022, up from $20bn in 2021. The firm spent $12bn on oil and gas projects, compared with $3.5bn on its renewable energy division.

The Greenpeace UK senior climate justice campaigner Elena Polisano said: “World leaders have just set up a new fund to pay for the loss and damage caused by the climate crisis. Now they should force historical mega-polluters like Shell to pay into it.”

Jonathan Noronha-Gant, a senior campaigner at Global Witness, said: “People have every right to be outraged at the enormous profits that Shell has made in the midst of an energy affordability crisis that has pushed millions of families into poverty.”

The company, which has a stock market valuation of $165bn, last week embarked on a review of its division supplying energy and broadband to homes in Europe, putting 2,000 UK jobs at risk.

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