European regulators have imposed a fine of more than $2 billion on eight large banks that used an illegal cartel scheme to fix interest rates. The largest fine ever issued in such a case by the European Union came after a two-year investigation into banks' collusion. And the inquiry isn't yet final.
Two American banks — JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup — are included in the list of financial institutions targeted by the EU fines, which are part of a settlement deal. Several of the institutions that cooperated with investigators saw their fines reduced or eliminated.
"Barclays received full immunity for revealing the existence of the cartel and thereby avoided a fine of around 690 million euros [$938 million] for its participation in the infringement," according to a news release from the EU.
Similarly, UBS also received immunity from what would have been a fine of around 2.5 billion euros — around $3.4 billion — for its cooperation.
For NPR's Newscast unit, Teri Schultz reports from Brussels:
"EU regulators found traders at some of the world's largest banks joined forces to manipulate borrowing rates, the euro interbank offered rate, or Euribor, and London interbank offered rate, or Libor. A record fine of about $2.3 billion dollars will be shared among eight institutions including Citigroup, Deutsche Bank and Royal Bank of Scotland.
"EU competition commissioner Joaquin Almunia says if the public could hear the conversations between traders found to be manipulating benchmark interest rates they would be 'appalled.'"
"They discussed confidential, commercial and sensitive information that they are not allowed to share with other market players according to the antitrust rules," Almunia says.
"Almunia says today's fines are not the 'end of the story,' as regulators continue their investigations."
The collusion centered on interest rate derivatives denominated in two currencies: the euro and the Japanese yen. The overall fine of more than 1.71 billion euros reflects a reduction of 10 percent that was given to the institutions for agreeing to settle the case.
The New York Times has this explanation of how Libor and Euribor rates are set: "banks submit the rates at which they would be prepared to lend money to each other, on an unsecured basis, in various currencies and varying maturities. Those rates are averaged, after the highest and lowest ones are eliminated, and that becomes that day's rate."
If your computer is infected with a virus or other forms of malware, disconnecting the machine from the Internet is one of the first steps security experts say you should take. But, someday, even physically separating your laptop from a network may not be enough to protect it from cyber evil-doers.
German computer scientists have come up with a prototype for building "covert channels" between computers using the machines' speakers and microphones, potentially defeating high-security measures that rely on placing a so-called "air gap" between computers.
The scientists said their network was based on a system originally designed for underwater communication.
"We adapt the communication system to implement covert and stealthy communications by utilizing the near ultrasonic frequency range," Michael Hanspach and Michael Goetz, of the Fraunhofer Institute for Communication, Information Processing and Ergonomics, wrote in a paper published in the November issue of the Journal of Communications.
As Dan Goodin explains in Ars Technica:
"The proof-of-concept software—or malicious trojans that adopt the same high-frequency communication methods—could prove especially adept in penetrating highly sensitive environments that routinely place an 'air gap' between computers and the outside world. Using nothing more than the built-in microphones and speakers of standard computers, the researchers were able to transmit passwords and other small amounts of data from distances of almost 65 feet. The software can transfer data at much greater distances by employing an acoustical mesh network made up of attacker-controlled devices that repeat the audio signals."
And such off-network intrusions may be more than theoretical. Ars Technica reported that a mystified security researcher determined his computers, which were unplugged from networks and had their Wi-Fi and Bluetooth cards removed, were infected with malware that used high-frequency transmissions.
The idea of hackers "jumping the air gap" has military officials worried, Geoffrey Ingersoll of Business Insider reported.
"If you take a cybernetic view of what's happening [in the Navy], right now our approach is unplug it or don't use a thumb drive," retired Navy Capt. Mark Hagerott, a cybersecurity professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, said at a recent defense conference. But if hackers "are able to jump the air gap, we are talking about fleets coming to a stop."
As Ingersoll explained in his post, "Ships would find their targeting software exploited and shut down, possibly even hijacked."
Hanspach and Goetz, the German scientists, said their concept poses dangers but added that safeguards could be implemented.
"Acoustical networking as a covert communication technology is a considerable threat to computer security," the scientists wrote in their paper. However, they said such audio snooping could be prevented using "a software-defined lowpass filter" or a "detection guard" that analyzes audio to identify hidden messages.
But to go through the trouble of putting up such countermeasures, computer owners would have to suspect they were being snooped on first.
The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 requires health plans that offer benefits for mental health and substance use to cover them to the same extent that they cover medical and surgical care.
Among other things, the law prohibits treatment limits and copayments or deductibles that are more restrictive than a plan's medical coverage.
The government issued interim regulations back in 2010 that clarified some aspects of the law. The final rules, issued in November, spell out more specifics.
To find out more, I talked with Jennifer Mathis, director of programs at the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, about the parity law and the new regulations. These interview highlights were condensed and edited for clarity.
What issues does this final mental health parity rule address that will be important to consumers?
The rule offers a number of clarifications about the parity law. Some of these clarifications concern how parity requirements relate to the Affordable Care Act, and others relate to issues that were not addressed in the interim rule.
Plans don't have to cover mental health benefits, but if they do, they generally have to cover inpatient and outpatient services, emergency care and prescription drugs. This final rule says that within a category, such as outpatient care, plans can treat preferred providers differently than nonpreferred providers. So it might mean a consumer could have higher copays for nonpreferred providers in their insurer's network for mental health outpatient services than for preferred providers, for example.
The regulation also said that services some would label as intermediate-level mental health services, including residential treatment and intensive outpatient services, are within the scope of the parity law. The regulations say they should be covered at parity. That hadn't been clear in the interim rules.
The parity law doesn't allow quantitative differences in coverage, such as fewer office visits or higher copayments for mental health services. But what about other limits that may be harder to measure?
The rule provides some clarification on that. These are things like requiring plan members to get prior authorization before receiving services and setting up protocols to determine whether treatment is medically necessary. What the final rules say is that plans must use the same type of processes to determine what is medically necessary or to require prior authorization for both mental health and medical services. If they have a rigorous process for justifying prior authorization for medical services they must have a similarly rigorous process for mental health services prior authorization as well.
What does it clarify about mental health coverage and the Affordable Care Act?
The ACA says plans can't have annual or lifetime dollar limits on the 10 essential health benefits, one of which is mental health and substance use disorder treatment. Normally, under parity, you can have those dollar limits as long as they're at parity with medical service limits. This rule clarifies that the ACA trumps parity in this regard.
Who's affected by this rule, and by parity more broadly?
People who get counseling, psychotherapy, prescription drugs are likely to see the biggest benefit from these rules because those are the services that commercial health plans usually cover. And they already have benefited since the law passed in 2008. This is not a brand new set of rules, this is an update of the rules that already apply. They have benefited and will continue to benefit.
And people on the exchanges who previously had no insurance or bad insurance not only will be able to get insurance now but also insurance with mental health parity.
The Affordable Care Act also applies parity requirements to insurance plans in the states that adopt the new Medicaid expansion for adults with incomes up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level ($15,856 for an individual in 2013). These regulations do not apply to those plans, but the government says that it will be issuing further guidance about how parity applies to those plans. Parity is likely to be a very important requirement in those plans, which in many cases will cover more mental health services than are typically covered by commercial insurance plans, including services that are used by people with significant psychiatric disabilities. Thus a wider variety of services, used by a wider group of people with mental health needs, will be subject to parity requirements.
What types of health plans are covered by the rule?
It generally applies to both fully insured and self-funded large group plans as well as individual and small group plans sold on and off the health insurance exchanges.
What if states have mandated mental health benefits of their own?
State parity laws that are more stringent than federal parity laws are not pre-empted. For example, some states' parity laws require coverage of particular services or benefits on top of the federal requirements. Some states require autism coverage, for example.
What about providers that don't accept insurance. Does the parity law or this rule affect them?
No. That is an issue, certainly for psychiatric services. That's becoming an increasing concern.
Since the mental health parity law passed, is there any evidence that companies have dropped mental health benefits from their plans so as not to have to comply?
A study sponsored by the Department of Health and Human Services found that since the 2010 parity regulations came out, only a small percentage of plans have dropped mental health or substance use coverage.
A report from payroll company ADP finds that "the U.S. private sector added 215,000 jobs during November making it the strongest month for job growth in 2013," says the company's president and chief executive, Carlos Rodriguez.
The surge in job creation outpaced economists' estimates of 173,000 jobs for the month, according to CNBC. The last time U.S. companies added a bigger number of jobs to their payrolls was in November 2012, with 276,000 jobs, ADP says.
"The job market remained surprisingly resilient to the government shutdown and brinkmanship over the treasury debt limit," says Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics, which collaborates with ADP on the report. "Employers across all industries and company sizes looked through the political battle in Washington. If anything, job growth appears to be picking up."
The ADP National Employment Report, which measures non-farm private employment, says small businesses led the way in job creation, with 102,000 jobs added.
"Goods-producing employment rose by 40,000 jobs in November, up from 29,000 in October," according to the report. "Both construction and manufacturing payrolls added 18,000 jobs apiece."
Also Wednesday, the Census Bureau reported that America's trade gap shrank in October, on the strength of record sales to China, Canada, and Mexico. The gap narrowed 5.4 percent, to $40.6 billion from $43 billion in the previous month.
From Bloomberg News:
"Sales of goods to China, Canada and Mexico were the highest ever, pointing to improving global demand that will benefit American manufacturers. In addition, an expanding U.S. economy is helping boost growth abroad as purchases of products from the European Union also climbed to a record in October even as fiscal gridlock prompted a partial federal shutdown."
The U.S. goods deficit with China shrank by $1.6 billion to $28.9 billion in October, as exports rose by $3.5 billion — a gain mainly attributable to soybeans, according to the Census Bureau, which is part of the Commerce Department.
The agency says that overall, both U.S. imports and exports of goods and services increased in October.
A white Volkswagen truck that was stolen Monday at a gas station in Mexico is no ordinary truck — officials say it's carrying "extremely dangerous" radioactive material. Authorities are conducting a wide search for the truck, which had been heading to a disposal facility, and warning the thieves that they could face serious health problems.
Mexico's nuclear safety group, known as CNSNS, issued a public alert Tuesday, saying that federal, state, and local authorities are looking in at least six states for the Volkswagen Worker truck, which is equipped with a crane and bears the license plate 726-DT-8.
From the BBC:
"The radiotherapy source was being taken from a hospital in the northern city of Tijuana to a waste storage center.
"It was stolen near the capital, Mexico City.
"Mexico's Nuclear Security Commission said that at the time of the theft, the cobalt-60 teletherapy source was 'properly shielded.' "
That shielding would seem to come from the equipment itself. In the truck, it was placed in a sealed wooden box that has steel edging.
Mexican officials have informed the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, of the theft.
The U.N. agency says the radioactive source material "could be extremely dangerous to a person if removed from the shielding, or if it was damaged."