Diving For Digital Dollars: Exploring For Lost Bitcoin
There is buried treasure in cyberspace.
The San José was a 62-gun, three-masted galleon that was sunk by the British with 600 people on board during the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714). The British were at the time trying to prevent Spanish galleons from returning to Europe loaded with bullion and jewels that could be to fund the war. The San José was sailing from Portobelo, Panama as the flagship of a treasure fleet of 14 merchant vessels and three warships. It was tracked near Cartagena by the English Commodore Charles Wager and attacked on 8th June 1708. Wager intended to capture the ship and the loot, but the galleon’s gunpowder supplies blew up and it sank in deep water.
A few years ago the Colombian navy discovered the wreck, thanks in part to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), which used its REMUS 6000 autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) to locate the remains at a depth of about 2,000 feet. They were not doing this purely out of curiosity, because the San José was carrying a couple of hundred tons of gold, silver, emeralds and such like that are worth an estimated $17 billion in today’s money. Yep, that’s not a misprint. It is the world’s richest shipwreck. Right now there are billions of dollars worth of 18th-century Latin American fungible tokens laying on the sea floor waiting to be picked up.
(Colombia estimates that it will cost about $70 million to salvage what it calls a “national treasure,” and it wants it put on display in a museum to be built in Cartagena but there’s an interesting dispute emerging around the wreck, which is in Colombian waters. Spain insists that the treasures are theirs, since they were aboard a Spanish ship, while Bolivia’s indigenous Qhara Qhara nation say the Spanish forced the community’s people to mine the precious metals, so the treasures should belong to them.)
I was thinking about the fate of this seabed fortune because I read a story of yet another crypto-chaos-mixup that occurred recently when someone typed in the wrong destination address for a token transfer and sent $36m-worth of frictionless digital money of the future into oblivion.
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There must be a lot of cryptocurrency that has sunk below the waves of the web because the USB stick/hard disk/post-it note with the key on has been destroyed (remember the poor chap searching through Welsh rubbish dumps to find his hard drive) or because the value was transferred to a wallet for which no private key exists or because the only person who knew the pass phrase has died in a swimming accident or been overcome by Alzheimers.
Those gold coins spread over the South American seabed remind me of all of those bitcoins that have gone to crypto-heaven, or perhaps crypto-purgatory, because the relevant private keys have been lost. In time, new technology will come along to mean that they can be recovered, except in this case it will be a quantum computer rather than a submarine. When quantum computers break the encryption behind the digital signature schemes used for (for example) Bitcoin BTC and Ether ETH eum, then people will be able to spend each others’ money with impunity.
It won’t be archeologists looking for these quantum computers, of course, because a great many other people (eg, organised crime, unscrupulous “whales” and the tax authorities of many nations) are searching for them too. The code-cracking quantum computers that will needed to find them are under development but they won’t happen tomorrow. Professor John Martinis, who used to be the top scientist in the Google GOOG quantum computing team, says that Google’s plan in this field is to build a million-qubit system with a sufficiently low error rate that error correction will be effective enough to make execution reliable about a decade from now. Such a system will have enough logical qubits that the system will be able to execute powerful algorithms to attack problems that are beyond the capability of classical supercomputers.
One of these problems is, of course, breaking the asymmetric cryptography at the heart of crypocurrency in order to transfer money out of lost or abandoned wallets. For technical reasons to do with the way that public keys and things work, the accountants Deloitte reckon that about four million Bitcoins will be vulnerable to such a quantum attack. With Bitcoin hovering around $30,000 or so, that means a pot of more than a hundred billion dollars is at the end of the quantum rainbow.
Remember that’s just for the lost or abandoned vulnerable wallets. A further and much bigger risk to Bitcoin is the attack on unprocessed transactions. When you spend Bitcoin, you broadcast your public key. An attacker with a quantum computer can find the corresponding private key and recreate the transaction to send the money (for example) to themselves. They they would need to get their bogus transactions processed before the original transaction (by paying a bigger fee). All of this would need to be well-timed and finished in a relatively small time window, which sounds hard but it is worth doing because it puts every Bitcoin transaction at risk.
Fishing for Bitcoin
Mark Webber and his team at the University of Sussex in the UK recently calculated that breaking the cryptography in a 10-minute window would require a quantum computer with 1.9 billion qubits, while cracking it in an hour would require a machine with 317 million qubits. Even allowing for a whole day, this figure only drops to 13 million qubits. In other words, the working quantum computer that can search Davy Jones cyberlocker is some way off, and it will cost a lot more than $70 million. Nonetheless, it’s coming.
The quantum version of the AUV that found the San José is an inevitability and the treasure will be discovered. And there is plenty of it laying around. The legendary Satoshi Nakamoto had in the region of a million bitcoins that he mined during the cryptocurrency’s development phase. Those coins should now considered treasure trove as Satoshi disappeared a few years after Bitcoin’s launch. Estimates vary but somewhere between a fifth and quarter of Bitcoin is already lost like this — or at least lost until a quantum computer comes along to collect it — and never coming back into circulation.
And that’s just Bitcoin. Other cryptocurrencies are at risk as well although, as noted in a paper from Stephen Holmes and Liqun Chen at the University of Surrey in the UK last year, the risks to different cryptocurrencies are not all the same. They share a common quantum vulnerability through use of non-quantum safe Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm (ECDSA) digital signatures but the specific risks of a successful quantum attack depend on many factors, such as the block interval time, the vulnerability to an attack that delays the time for an unprocessed transaction to be completed and the behaviour of a cryptocurrency user to increase the cost of a quantum computer attack.
In time, value will migrate to currencies built on quantum-resistant algorithms, or to quantum computers themselves. But right now it might be well worth spending a few billion to build a quantum submarine to dive down dredge up a hundred billion or so in lost cryptocurrency. Who’s up for a crowdfunding?
Bonds See 2023 Recession, Stocks Aren’t So Sure
The yield curve is one of the most robust recession predictors and has signaled a recession may be coming since mid 2022. In contrast, U.S. stocks as measured by the S&P 500 are up materially from the lows of last October and only just below year-to-date highs, seemingly rejecting recession fears. Yet, fixed income markets see the Fed potentially cutting rates by the summer, perhaps reacting to a U.S. recession.
The Evidence From The Bond Markets
The recessionary evidence, at least from fixed income markets, is mounting. The 10 yield Treasury yield has been below the 2 year yield consistently since last July. That is is called an inverted yield curve and has signaled a recession fairly reliably when compared to other leading indicators.
Building on that, fixed income markets see almost a nine in ten chance that the Federal Reserve cuts rates by September of this year. That’s something the Fed has repeatedly said they won’t do on their current forecasts. Yet, a recession could cause it to happen.
The Stock Market
In contrast, the stock market shows some optimism. The S&P 500 is up 7% year-to-date as the market has shrugged off fears of contagion from recent banking issues. In particular, tech stocks have rallied.
In contrast, more defensive sectors such as healthcare, utilities and consumer goods have lagged in 2023. This suggests that the stock market is taking more of a ‘risk on’ position and is perhaps less worried about the economy.
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That said the stock market is a leading indicator of the business cycle, it may be that stocks see a recession, but are now looking past it to growth ahead and are factoring in the lower discount rates that a recession might bring as interest rates decline. Also, the U.S. stock market is relatively global, so the fate of the U.S. economy is a key factor in driving profits, but not the only one.
Monitoring unemployment data will be key. Though the yield curve is a good long-term forecaster of recessions it is less precise in signaling when a recession starts. Unemployment rates can offer more accurate recession timing. Unemployment edged up in February, suggesting a recession may be near, but we’ve also seen monthly noise unemployment. Two similar monthly unemployment spikes during 2022 both proved false alarms.
However, if we see a sustained move up in unemployment from the low levels of 2022 that may be a relatively clear sign that a recession is here. Economist Claudia Sahm estimates that a sustained 0.5% increase in unemployment rate from 12-month lows is sufficient to trigger a recession. Unemployment rose 0.2% from January to February 2023, so maybe we’re on the way there. Of course, the jobs market performed better than expected in 2022 and it could do so again. Still, fixed income markets do suggest a 2023 recession is coming. Stock markets don’t necessarily share that view.
Which States Have The Highest And Lowest Life Expectancies?
There’s a wide variance of life expectancies among the 50 states in the U.S., according to a recent report prepared by Assurance, an insurance technology platform that helps consumers with decisions related to insurance and financial well-being.
Figure 1 below shows the 10 states with the highest life expectancy, starting with Hawaii, the state with the highest life expectancy.
Figure 2 below shows the 10 states with the lowest life expectancy, starting with Mississippi, the state with the lowest life expectancy.
Assurance scoured life expectancy data prepared in January 2023 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). With this data, Assurance created several easy-to-understand graphics that offer information about life expectancies.
Life expectancies are a basic measure of well-being
As measured by the CDC, life expectancies are a basic measurement of well-being in a broad population and not a prediction of how long an individual might live. The CDC measures the expected lifespan for a person born in the year of measurement. This measurement is calculated based on the assumption that the individual will live and die according to the rates of death that are prevalent in the measurement year for each age. There’s no assumed improvement or backsliding in the assumed mortality rates in future years for each age in the life expectancy calculation.
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By contrast, an estimated lifespan for an individual would consider their current age, their gender, and some basic lifestyle information. It might also attempt to project future improvements or backsliding in mortality rates based on key factors.
Significant influences on life expectancy calculations
Leading causes of death in the U.S. are heart disease, cancer, and accidents in that order. These immediate causes are significantly influenced by factors in the population such as poverty rates, educational attainment, rates of obesity and smoking, access to healthcare, prevalence of violent crime, and the support people receive from federal, state, and local governments. All these factors can vary widely among different states, which can be a key reason why life expectancies vary by state.
When you think about it, all these factors also have the potential to influence a person’s quality of life. The measured life expectancy rate rolls up all these factors into one objective measurement of well-being that’s based on population data.
In addition to the factors listed above, mortality rates increased and life expectancies decreased in the past few years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. A recent article titled “Live Free And Die” summarized recent research results that show that life expectancies in most countries around the world rebounded after the Covid-19 pandemic but that they continued to decline in the United States. Many of the reasons cited in the article for the continued decline in U.S. life expectancies are the same or similar to the factors listed above.
Why should retirees care about the life expectancies reported here if these measures don’t predict your own lifespan? Life expectancy calculations indicate the general well-being of the entire population in your area. While the living conditions in your area can influence your own lifespan and quality of life, retirees should focus on their remaining life expectancy given their age. They should also consider how the factors listed above that influence life expectancies in the population might apply to them.
You can obtain customized estimates of your remaining life expectancy at the Actuaries Longevity Illustrator. Part of your planning for retirement is understanding how long you an an individual might live, instead of relying on generalized information about larger populations you see in the media.
IRS Dirty Dozen Campaign Warns Taxpayers To Avoid Offer In Compromise ‘Mills’
Owing taxes can be stressful. Unfortunately, the actions of some companies can make it worse. As part of its “Dirty Dozen” campaign, the IRS has renewed a warning about so-called Offer in Compromise “mills” that often mislead taxpayers into believing they can settle a tax debt for pennies on the dollar—while the companies collective excessive fees.
The “Dirty Dozen” is an annual list of common scams taxpayers may encounter. Many of these schemes peak during tax filing season as people prepare their returns or hire someone to help with their taxes. The schemes put taxpayers and tax professionals at risk of losing money, personal information, data, and more.
(You can read about other schemes on the list this year—including aggressive ERC grabs here, phishing/smishing scams here and charitable ploys here.)
Tax Debt Resolution Schemes
“Too often, we see some unscrupulous promoters mislead taxpayers into thinking they can magically get rid of a tax debt,” said IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel.
“This is a legitimate IRS program, but there are specific requirements for people to qualify. People desperate for help can make a costly mistake if they clearly don’t qualify for the program. Before using an aggressive promoter, we encourage people to review readily available IRS resources to help resolve a tax debt on their own without facing hefty fees.”
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Offers In Compromise
Legitimate is a key word. Offers in Compromise are an important program to help people who can’t pay to settle their federal tax debts. But, as the IRS notes, these “mills” can aggressively promote Offers in Compromise—OIC—in misleading ways to people who don’t meet the qualifications, frequently costing taxpayers thousands of dollars.
An OIC allows you to resolve your tax obligations for less than the total amount you owe. You generally submit an OIC because you don’t believe you owe the tax, you can’t pay the tax, or exceptional circumstances exist.
Because of the nature of the OIC—and the dollars involved—the process can be time-consuming. It can also be confusing for taxpayers who may not have a complete grasp on their finances.
First, you must complete a detailed application, Form 656, Offer in Compromise. You must also submit Form 433-A, Collection Information Statement for Wage Earners and Self-Employed Individuals, or Form 433-B, Collection Information Statement for Businesses, with supporting documentation (generally, bank and brokerage statements and proof of expenses).
You’ll also need to submit a non-refundable fee of $205 and payment made in good faith. The payment is typically 20% of the offer amount for a lump sum cash offer or the first month’s payment for those made over time. Generally, initial payments will not be returned but will be applied to your tax debt if your offer is not accepted. Payments and fees may be waived if the OIC is submitted based solely on the premise that you do not owe the tax or if your total monthly income falls at or below income levels based on the Department of Health and Human Services (DHSS) poverty guidelines.
The IRS will examine your application and decide whether to accept it based on many things, including the total amount due and the time remaining to collect under the statute of limitations. The IRS will also review your income—including future earnings and accounts receivables—and your reasonable expenses, as determined by their formula. The IRS will also consider the amount of equity you have in assets that you own—this would include real property, personal property (like automobiles), and bank accounts.
Before your offer can be considered, you must be compliant. That means you must have filed all your tax returns and paid off any liabilities not subject to the OIC. After you submit your offer, you must continue to timely file your tax returns, and pay all required tax, including estimated tax payments. If you don’t, the IRS will return your offer.
Additionally, you cannot currently be in an open bankruptcy proceeding, and you must resolve any open audit or outstanding innocent spouse claim issues before you submit an offer.
You can probably tell—it’s a lot to consider. You may want representation. A tax professional can help marshal you through the process and offer practical guidance, while communicating what fees could look like.
By contrast, according to the IRS, an OIC “mill” will usually make outlandish claims, frequently in radio and TV ads, about how they can settle a person’s tax debt for cheap. Also telling: the fees tend to be significant in exchange for very little work.
Those mills also knowingly advise indebted taxpayers to file an OIC application even though the promoters know the person will not qualify, costing taxpayers money and time. You can check your eligibility for free using the IRS’s Offer in Compromise Pre-Qualifier tool.
“Pennies On A Dollar”
What about those promises that taxpayers can routinely settle for pennies on a dollar? Not true. Generally, the IRS will not accept an offer if they believe you can pay your tax debt in full through an installment agreement or equity in assets, including your home. That’s why the IRS tends to reject a majority of OICs that are submitted. The acceptance rate is less than 1 in 3, according to the 2021 Data Book.
The IRS will generally approve an OIC when the amount offered represents the best opportunity for the IRS to collect the debt. It’s true that there’s a formula that the IRS uses to figure out how much they think they can collect from you. But there is some wiggle room to account for special circumstances, including a loss of income or a medical condition. It’s worth noting those are the exceptions, not the rule.
While submitting an OIC may keep the IRS from calling you, it doesn’t stop all collections activities—don’t believe companies that suggest that submitting an OIC will make your tax debt disappear. Penalties and interest will continue to accrue on your outstanding tax liability. Additionally, the IRS may keep your tax refund, including interest, through the date the IRS accepts your OIC.
You may also be liened. In most cases, the IRS will file a Notice of Federal Tax Lien to protect their interests, and the lien will generally stay in place until your tax obligation is satisfied.
An OIC is a serious effort to resolve tax debt and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Be skeptical—if it sounds too good to be true, it likely is. If you’re considering an OIC, hire a competent tax professional who understands the rules and is willing to level with you about your chances of being successful—including other options. Don’t fall into a trap that can make your situation worse.
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