1994-04-16 - Laundering money through commodity futures

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From: gnu
To: cypherpunks@toad.com
Message Hash: 0e08e2ad95af90da135a2ebe1ceb0ddbcd9f86ad6d3984aa1f7d555b044c72f0
Message ID: <9404160625.AA00695@toad.com>
Reply To: N/A
UTC Datetime: 1994-04-16 06:26:10 UTC
Raw Date: Fri, 15 Apr 94 23:26:10 PDT

Raw message

From: gnu
Date: Fri, 15 Apr 94 23:26:10 PDT
To: cypherpunks@toad.com
Subject: Laundering money through commodity futures
Message-ID: <9404160625.AA00695@toad.com>
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: text/plain

I wonder if anonymous digital cash will really consist of shares in
frozen orange juice futures...


Date: Fri, 15 Apr 1994 06:55:58 -0400
From: farber@central.cis.upenn.edu (David Farber)
Subject: The Soft Pork Underbelly of Efficient Markets [I knew electronic markets were good for something .. djf]
To: interesting-people@eff.org (interesting-people mailing list)

Date: Thu, 31 Mar 1994 23:30:20 -0500
From: Peter Wayner <pcw@access.digex.net>
Subject: The Soft Pork Underbelly of Efficient Markets

     The Under Pork Belly of Efficient Markets, or
     How to Launder Money Using Cattle Futures

The great promise of electronic networks and virtual communities is a
collection of very efficient markets. In the future, information will be
moved, products will be sold and trades will be executed in a blink of an eye.
This efficiency is usually considered to be a pretty good thing by everyone in
business, in economics or in line at the video store. The underside of this
efficiency, though, is a blurring of the line between legitimate and
illegitimate business.

A good way to understand this effect is to study the case of how to launder
money using the futures markets. Laundering money is an age old problem for
people who want to move funds from person A to person B without leaving a
suspicious trail. Cash is the nieve approach and it has plenty of problems: it
is bulky, it can be lost or stolen, and most importantly it often leaves
people asking "Hey, where did that come from?"

The futures markets, though, make it simple to move funds in a way that is
indistinguishable from ordinary commerce. If it is done correctly, the
recipiant, person A, looks like a lucky stiff or a market savvy investor.
Person B is usually out of the picture or out of luck. The same games can be
played with almost any other market, but futures markets are so efficient that
the process is actually feasible and easy to do.

The basic transaction in futures is to buy or sell a contract for the delivery
of x pounds/barrels/tons/feet of some commodity at y dollars/yen/marks etc. If
you buy a contract, then you're obligated to actually cough up y dollars when
the contract comes due.  Most people don't hold on to the contracts long
enough for them to actually take delivery.  They sell another contract and the
futures market maintains a clearing house that is responsible for matching up
the contracts and cancelling them out. It's a great system. Very efficient and
very useful for farmers, manufacturers and others who actually produce and
consume commodities.

Futures markets are great for laundering money, though, because they can
generate big losses or big gains in a short amount of time. It is quite
possible for $100 to turn into a $5000 gain overnight. The downside is that it
can often turn into a $5000 loss in the same amount of time. In fact, the
market is a zero sum game. If you make n dollars, then there is someone out
there who just lost n dollars. The sum total of the losses and the winnings
equals zero.

This zero sum nature is the key to laundering the money. Person A and Person B
get together and guess that the price for a commodity is going to go up. That
means that who ever buys a contract will make money. So Person A, the intended
recipient buys a contract and Person B sells a contract. If they're right,
then Person A gets the money and Person B loses the same amount.

Bingo. The money moved from B to A and no one can trace how it got there.
Person A looks smart or lucky and Person B looks out of luck. There was no
direct connection between the two. There are thousands of other people out
there winning and losing money at the same time. The marketplace's central
clearing house arranges it so each wins and loses their rightful share.

You may wonder why B bothered to sell a contract and lose money. This is the
safeguard against guessing wrong. No one is correct all of the time. Even the
people who try and rig the markets and corner them get burned as often as they
succeed. The best investors in the futures markets, the ones who make money
time after time, are the arbitrageurs. They spot inefficient pockets and try
and remain neutral to the overall shifts in the market.

Person B sells the contract so that if the market goes down, i.e., the wrong
way, then A and B together have lost no money. It's a zero sum. Now they just
have to play the game a bit longer or for stakes that are twice as high. You
can think of the process as flipping a coin until you have encounter a heads.

Ideally, you play this game with two players with relatively deep
pockets. This means that A can cover the short term loses. This is a
bit of a disadvantage because many money laundering operations must
move cash from the rich to the poor. You can cover up this problem by
using the same broker for A and B. The broker executes the trades and
then assigns the winning trade to A and the losing trade to B. They
fill in the order books after the fact.

Using the same broker for A and B can be problematic because it may look too
suspicious if the mirrored trades appear on the same ledger. The beauty of
this system is that it can look quite indistinguishable from normal business
practices. Many companies actively enter the futures markets to hedge
themselves against foreign currency movements. Others actively enter the
futures markets to guarantee themselves a good supply of their raw materials.

The essential point of this lesson is that fast, efficient markets make it
possible to move money easily. The futures markets were designed so that is no
real other half to every trade. It's literally you against the world with
every trade. The RISKS, of course, is that accountability can vanish as the
size of the crowd grows to be as big as the world. There is no way to catch up
with this. The futures market are so great because there is no need to deal
one on one.

The effects of speed are not only apparent in big financial markets. Credit
cards and overnight delivery are a dangerous combination. You could steal
cards, order a fortune of stuff, arrange for it all to be delivered overnight
and then jump town quickly before people notice the card was gone. Suddenly,
merchants must deal with the fact that something that used to be complete
legitimate (exchanging cash for goods) is now a potential theft.

Of course, there are other crimes that lose their edge. It is much harder to
escape the law by heading to a new town. Computerized fingerprint files are
very, very efficient.

I think everyone felt that perfect, computerized markets would bring about the
right mixture of accountability and efficiency. It would be a perfect mixture
of Big Brotherly scrutiny would take care of everything. Every trade, after
all, is recorded in the futures market. Yet, the best mechanism for anonymous
fund transfer yet discovered exists here in the midsts of all of this record
keeping, legal scrutiny and oversight.

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