Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Intrade End Game

The most useful source of information on US political events, Intrade, is shutting down:
With sincere regret we must inform you that due to circumstances recently discovered we must immediately cease trading activity on
These circumstances require immediate further investigation, and may include financial irregularities which in accordance with Irish law oblige the directors to take the following actions:
-Cease exchange trading on the website immediately.
-Settle all open positions and calculate the settled account value of all Member accounts immediately.
-Cease all banking transactions for all existing Company accounts immediately.During the upcoming weeks, we will investigate these circumstances further and determine the necessary course of action.
To mitigate any further risk to members’ accounts, we have closed and settled all open contracts at fair market value as of the close of business on March 10, 2013, in accordance with the Terms and Conditions of our customers’ use of the website. You may view your account details and settled account balances by logging into the website.
At this time and until further notice, it is not possible to make any payments to members in accordance with their settled account balance until the investigations have concluded.

The outcome of shutting down was bound to happen eventually. But it's hard to know what to make of this press release in particular.

Part of the backstory is this disgraceful attempt by the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission to sue them over the fact that US investors were using the markets. Imagine that! US citizens having a bet on the outcome of an election! How will the republic survive?

They did the same thing with the sports betting version, Tradesports a few years ago. Under the rubric of the standard 'Think of the Children!' argument, the US government had to work hard to stamp tradesports out for a much bigger sin - offering a better sports gambling product at a lower cost than Vegas was willing to offer. And hey presto! Out you go. Tradesports made the Superbowl actually fun (no mean feat), as you could watch each play and see how the price reacted, getting real-time information on the progress of the game.

Tradesports was taken out sooner, because Vegas makes decent money off sports betting. They were willing to let the political side linger a bit longer, because this is small potatoes. Seeing the writing on the wall, the company who originally ran both (Intrade and Tradesports) sensibly decided to split the two parts off into separate companies. This managed to stave off the crocodile a little longer. What they really needed to do was start bribing making donations to some US senators. That would have been more useful. The trouble with being incorporated in Ireland is that you're far enough away that you can't have political influence, but not so far away that you can escape prosecution. Then again Full Tilt Poker was incorporated in Ireland. Then again again, when the DOJ came looking for them, they ended up getting acquired by PokerStars, incorporated in The Isle of Man. I don't know how much the jurisdiction helps. If it were me, I'd try for Macau. You can bet the ChiComs wouldn't bother you. If you are going to do it, though, you need to learn the lesson that DeBeers executives figured out, but David Carruthers of didn't figure out - don't plan to set foot in the US.

As with all this stuff, the way they go after you is the Wikileaks trick - they make it illegal for credit card companies to transfer you money. He who controls Visa and Mastercard controls the world. At least until BitCoin gets big. Mencius Moldbug predicted that if BitCoin ever did look like it was getting big, the government would shut it down. Care to take the other side of that wager? I'll give you pretty good odds.

Whether the CFTC is motivated by the same considerations that make the government put the squeeze on Tradesports is unclear. Frankly, bureaucratic petty jealousy would be more than enough to motivate these pinheads. Look, someone somewhere is trading a financial product without our authority! Shut it down! Sue them into oblivion!

The real question is why Intrade decided to stop trading now. After all, the loathesome CFTC press release was from November. Why now?

As far as I can see, there seem to be two possibilities.

One is that the government is pulling a Conrad Black. This is where they charge you with a crime and then find some pretext to freeze your assets, thereby making it incredibly hard for you to raise the money to pay for decent lawyers. How freezing their members accounts will help them is unclear - I'd be quite surprised if under Irish law they're allowed to used member funds (which are likely in some kind of trust) to pay for legal bills.

The other is that they've figured out that the money simply isn't there. Corporate directors don't use the words 'financial irregularities' unless they really have to. In other words, the reason they can't pay out members is that they've figured out that someone has been skimming money off the top, and now there aren't enough funds there to pay out everyone in full. In which case, you can't pay out anyone until you find out what the hell is going on. This was the substance of the allegations against Full Tilt Poker. If you're skimming money off the top, you're effectively running a Ponzi scheme, although not one with explosive growth.

It's possible the two ideas actually interact. In other words, the member funds are held in trust, but the company has been forced to make some provision for losses under the CFTC action. If you think there's now a chance that you'll be insolvent when it's all finished, it's not clear exactly what steps you'd take as a company, but this may well be one of them. (Not remembering all of my trusts law so clearly, I tried getting some kind of answer for the US here, but it looked rather hard. Actual lawyers would probably know the answer). So even if there isn't anything untoward going on in the company accounts, it wouldn't surprise me if this had something to do with it.

So at last, the government gets their way! The prediction markets in the US get eviscerated, except for BetFair, which actually does make it hard for US investors to take part (which probably doesn't help the accuracy of US election predictions), and, more importantly, is large enough in the UK that they have political power and can't be pushed around so easily.

The government doesn't specifically want inaccurate predictions. It just doesn't want anyone other than Vegas  or Wall Street to make any money on contingent financial contracts, no matter how small the amount, no matter how trifling the event being predicted.

The real winner in all this is Nate Silver. If you want predictions for important events, don't look to markets to save you. The markets would be happy to oblige, of course, but too many important people stand to lose money if that happens. Nothing personal old chap, you know how it is.

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