Morning Brew - ☕ That's a lotta fraud

Spotify gets into audiobooks...
September 21, 2022 View Online | Sign Up | Shop

Morning Brew


​​Good morning. Something really spooky is going on in Mexico. A 7.4 magnitude earthquake rattled Mexico City on Monday, which was the same date—September 19—as two other deadly earthquakes that hit Mexico, one in 1985 and the other in 2017.

What are the odds of that? One physicist said the probability of three earthquakes happening on the same date was 0.000751%, or 1-in-133,335, while another expert marked the odds much lower, at 0.00000024%. ​​“The coincidence of the dates of the earthquakes deserves to open new lines of scientific research,” Mexico’s National Seismological Service said.

Neal Freyman, Jamie Wilde, Max Knoblauch














*Stock data as of market close, cryptocurrency data as of 10:00pm ET. Here's what these numbers mean.

  • Markets: Investors pregamed the Fed’s big interest rate decision coming this afternoon by sending stocks lower and Treasury yields higher; they’re sweating what’s expected to be the central bank’s third 75-basis-point hike in a row to tamp down inflation. Speaking of inflation, Ford’s stock had its worst day in 11 years after warning of $1 billion in extra supplier costs.


The ‘SPAC King’ abdicates

Chamath Mike Windle/Getty Images

Chamath Palihapitiya, the bombastic billionaire investor who once claimed to be the next Warren Buffett, is winding down two of his special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) and returning $1.5 billion to investors. It marks the symbolic end to the SPAC bubble that Palihapitiya is credited with instigating.

Remember SPACs? They’re shell companies that are formed with the intention of acquiring a private startup, taking them public, and skirting the traditional IPO process. But after hunting for deals for two years, Palihapitiya said his team couldn’t find attractive targets for the two SPACs. “It is a very, very precarious moment in the public capital markets,” he told the WSJ.

That doesn’t sound like the same guy who, during the height of the SPAC boom in 2020–21, regularly bragged on Twitter about his deals and positioned himself as an advocate for individual investors. Dubbed the “SPAC King,” Palihapitiya kicked off the frenzy in 2019 by taking Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic public via SPAC. Fast-forward a couple of years, and every celebrity you know—from Shaq to Martha Stewart—got involved in a SPAC.

During the peak of SPAC mania in Q1 2021, 314 SPAC IPOs raised $100.3 billion—more than any full-year amount previously, according to the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance.

Times have changed

A regulatory crackdown on SPACs and the flight from risky assets due to soaring inflation have crushed the SPAC market—while disproportionately impacting the individual traders Palihapitiya patronized. Because SPACs are structured to protect their creators, he said he’s roughly doubled his money through his SPACs. But over on the stock market, where regular investors can buy in, all but one of the companies Palihapitiya took public via SPAC are down at least ~40% from their initial listing price.

Zoom out: The SPAC rout reflects the utter barrenness of this year’s IPO market. Today marks 238 days since a large US tech IPO—the longest drought in more than 20 years.—NF



It’s *officially* pumpkin season 🎃


Tomorrow may be the last day of summer, but we’ve been in the fall spirit ever since pumpkin drinks came out of hibernation.

Whether you’re feeling festive like we are or you’ve been holding out for the official season switch, the most delicious way to imbibe the seasonal vibes is with the limited-edition Starbucks® Pumpkin Cream Nitro Cold Brew. Or maybe you’re in the mood for the fan-fave Iced Espresso Pumpkin Spice Latte. Either way, each sip is guaranteed to have you fully immersed in your ~fall feelings~.

Stock up on these delicious brews and enjoy them whenever and wherever you want to taste the season. Shop here.



Tour de headlines

A protester holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in support of Amini, a young Iranian woman who died after being arrested in Tehran by the Islamic Republic's morality police Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images

Protests grow in Iran over a woman’s death. More Iranians filled the streets yesterday to protest the death of Mahsa Amini. The 22-year-old Kurdish woman died last week after she was arrested by Iran’s morality police, who are tasked with enforcing laws that require women to wear a headscarf (hijab) and loose-fitting clothing in public. Five people have been killed in the protests, a human rights group said, while the government sought to tamp down the unrest by reaching out to Amini’s family.

Russia wants to bring its new territory into the fold. The Kremlin’s proxies in four occupied Ukrainian regions said they will hold votes on annexation beginning on Friday. This major escalation is being seen as a way for Russia to consolidate the areas it’s already won as Ukrainian forces recapture wide swaths of territory. European leaders called the referendums a “sham,” similar to the annexation vote held in Russian-occupied Crimea in 2014, which most international governments do not recognize.

Amazon’s football experiment seems to be going well. Amazon Prime Video’s first Thursday Night Football broadcast last week broke the record for Prime sign-ups over a three-hour period, according to an internal memo seen by CNBC. That means the prospect of missing an NFL game generated more new Prime subscriptions than any other three-hour period, including during shopping events like Prime Day, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday. The “audience numbers exceeded all of our expectations for viewership,” Amazon’s global sports boss said.


47 charged in massive $250m Covid fraud scheme

A child picks up a free lunch. John Moore/Getty Images

The Justice Department charged 47 people yesterday for allegedly carrying out the single largest Covid relief fraud scheme to date. Feds say that by exploiting a program meant to feed needy Minnesota children, the defendants stole $250 million.

Prosecutors say the fraud was committed by a network of individuals connected to the nonprofit Feeding Our Future and was overseen by the nonprofit’s founder, Aimee Bock. Feeding Our Future was one of a handful of organizations Minnesota trusted to oversee the distribution of meals to children in low-income families during the pandemic. Instead, prosecutors allege, the organization operated a “pay-to-play scheme” in which individuals submitted fake meal sites and children’s names, raking in government money with fraudulent invoices.

  • How brazen was the fraud? Feds say one restaurant collected $1.1 million in just a month while claiming to feed 185,000 children. The FBI noted that a typical McDonald’s restaurant brings in $2.9 million in a full year.

Rather than help Minnesota children, prosecutors say the stolen funds were spent on cars, guns, and real estate in the US, Turkey, and Kenya.

Zoom out: While it’s the largest pandemic relief fraud case, this is certainly not the last: There are 500 agents working on pandemic fraud cases and 1,500 individuals have already been charged with defrauding relief programs.—MK



Spotify hits the books

A stack of books with the Spotify logo Francis Scialabba

Spotify started selling audiobooks in the US yesterday. It represents Part 2 of the company’s push to become a one-stop shop for your earholes (the first being podcasts).

Spotify’s Head of Audiobooks Nir Zicherman said that the audiobook market is expanding by about 20% annually. What he didn’t say is that it’s dominated by one big player: Amazon. Its service, Audible, accounted for more than 40% of the audiobook market in 2018, according to data from Codex.

But Spotify could turn down Amazon’s volume by offering users something Audible doesn’t: options.

  • Spotify users can buy audiobooks a la carte, instead of through a monthly subscription like what Audible offers.
  • Zicherman teased the possibility of a freemium model, which would add free, ad-supported audiobooks to the service.
  • Amateurs will be able to upload audiobooks to Spotify, too. So if you thought your coworker’s text-only e-books were cringe…

An interesting wrinkle: You won’t be able to purchase audiobooks in the Spotify app. Instead, you’ll have to buy them on a separate web page before downloading in the app. This obstacle course allows Spotify to circumvent the cut Apple and Google take from purchases made in apps downloaded from their app stores.—JW



McKinsey & Co

Keep your on these tech trends. New research from McKinsey spills allll the tea on the development, possible uses, and industry effects of today’s biggest emerging technologies, from Web3 to applied AI and everything in between. Download the Technology Trends Outlook 2022 report to learn how the latest advancements could impact your org.



Key performance indicators

Scene from A Bug’s Life/Walt Disney Studios via Giphy

Stat: That’s the face you’re gonna make when you hear this—researchers at the University of Hong Kong say they’ve finally calculated how many ants there are in the world, and it’s an “unimaginable” amount. They estimate that there are 20 quadrillion ants living on Earth, or 2.5 million ants for every human. If you used a watermelon to lure all of the ants in the world onto a scale, they’d weigh about 12 megatons of dry carbon, which is more than the weight of all wild mammals and birds.

Quote: “Nobody’s going to go there until she’s home.”

WNBA star Breanna Stewart told the AP that American women basketball players are avoiding playing in Russia this year due to the detainment and conviction of Brittney Griner. Historically, many WNBA players have spent their offseason playing on Russian teams because of better compensation and benefits.

Read: The enduring wisdom of Goodnight Moon. (New York Times)


  • All adults under 65 should be screened regularly for anxiety, a powerful health panel said yesterday.
  • Venezuelan migrants who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard filed a class-action lawsuit against FL GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis and other state officials for relocating them under false pretenses.
  • Peloton announced its rowing machine: It’s $3,195.
  • The chess fiasco escalates: World Champion Magnus Carlsen abruptly resigned from his online match against Hans Niemann, who other pro chess players have suspected of cheating in another match against Carlsen.
  • Stop cooking chicken in Nyquil, the FDA said (it’s been a social media challenge).


Willy Wonka IRL: Watch some British lads make rock candy in this remarkable video from 1957.

Food tips: The 100 most nutritious foods in the world and the fall items currently at Trader Joe’s.

Undercover QB: Eli Manning disguised himself as “Chad Powers” and showed up to Penn State as a walk-on. A+ video.

Behind the Numbers: The Banking & Payments Show is a new semimonthly podcast covering the landscape of digital banking, cryptocurrency, fintech, payments, insurance, and more. Listen today on Apple and Spotify.


The puzzle section

Word Search: Visit the National Parks in today’s Word Search. Play it here.

Name that building

This building is having a busy week. Do you know what it is?

UN buildingGary Hershorn/Getty Images


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Are you a millennial who did everything “right” but still struggle financially? You’re not alone. Tune into Money with Katie for a two-part deep dive into money, millennials, and the “American dream.”

Listen to the latest Imposters episode with New York Times best-selling author Ayana Gray on coping with imposter syndrome and the fear of failure.

Ever wonder how your favorite companies handle the demands of a changing workforce? Join us on Sept. 28 at 2pm ET for a virtual event. Sign up here.


United Nations Secretariat Building in NYC, which is hosting the UN General Assembly this week.


Written by Neal Freyman, Jamie Wilde, and Max Knoblauch

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