3 Thoughts on the Madoff Fraud

Here’s a recap of the Madoff case, from the Wall Street Journal:

Bernard L. Madoff, a former chairman of the Nasdaq Stock Market and a force in Wall Street trading for nearly 50 years, was arrested by federal agents Thursday, a day after his sons turned him in for running what they said their father called “a giant Ponzi scheme.”

The Securities and Exchange Commission, in a civil complaint, said it was an ongoing $50 billion swindle, and asked a judge to seize the firm and its assets. “Our complaint alleges a stunning fraud that appears to be of epic proportions,” said Andrew M. Calamari, associate director of enforcement in the SEC’s New York office.

In a separate criminal complaint, Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Theodore Cacioppi said Mr. Madoff’s investment advisory business had “deceived investors by operating a securities business in which he traded and lost investor money, and then paid certain investors purported returns on investment with the principal received from other, different investors, which resulted in losses of approximately billions of dollars.”

Clusterstock has a pretty comprehensive list of Madoff’s victims. The case is still unfolding, but it’s big. Huge. More massive than Enron.

Not again. Three prominent things came to mind for me:

1. Wikipedia:

He has been active in the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD), a self-regulatory organization for the U.S. securities industry. His firm was one of the five most active firms in the development of the NASDAQ, and he served as its chairman of the board of directors, and on its board of governors.

No wonder regulators didn’t catch him earlier in his scheme. He was one of their own.

2. The criminal complaint alleges that investors lost $50 billion because of the scheme.
He was charged with a single count of securities fraud. Madoff was released on the same day of his arrest after posting $10 million bail.

I feel sorry for the people whose $10 million he used to get himself out of jail.

3. He provided impossibly steady returns, but people kept investing with him anyway.

This gives insight into the nature of greed. Greed isn’t just limited to “I can get more? Great! Sign me up.” Greed is your friends calling you up and telling you that you have to put your money in a certain fund. Greed is knowing that it’s too good to be true, but thinking that fate will exempt you from consequences. Greed is thinking you have an inroad to privileged returns, without stopping to ponder where those returns are actually coming from. Greed goes hand-in-hand with ignorance and laziness. It’s culturally embedded.

No wonder so many people were misled.

  • Madoff, Ken Lay, Enron & Arthur Anderson, Tyco, Phil Gramm and loosened financial regulations, CDO’s & CDS’s, Iraq’s WMD’s as a pretext for an invasion, and Obama’s senate seat up for sale – and the list goes on & on. We have some serious soul searching to do, especially about misplaced trust, unregulated business shenanigans, the abuse of power, and naive faith in corrupt leaders. 2009 will see America in its most serious crisis since the Great Depression, and we had better have an equally serious national discussion on how the richest country in the world squandered its wealth and became so deeply in debt. I, for one, am sick of ideology and spinmeisters – I want practical steps to get us to a more sustainable future for our grandchildren. Greed, malfeasance & moral corruption in high places have pushed us to the edge of the abyss and I’m counting on President-elect Obama to lead us towards finding our way back onto solid ground before we disintegrate into social chaos. The hour is late, and more bad news is on the horizon. The world looks at us, the “leader of the free world”, in disgust and disbelief. More shopping is NOT the answer to our REAL problems. Turn off the tv and go attend a community meeting in your neighborhood – get involved. You are a fool if you trust the government, “the experts” and the special interests to fix your world for you. Their interests are NOT your interests. How many times do you need to see this before you grasp their true motivations? Get involved yourself…

  • Harry Hagan

    Alan nailed it, in the main. I would add that we are entering, or have entered, a new cultural and moral Dark Ages. The Media have steered the country away from any sort of traditional religiosity in favor of a hipper, cooler, more secular, culture. The steering has worked; we’ve escaped and leapt the bounds of morality and ethics. Nothing replaced the traditiional morality. Anything at all “goes.”
    All that aside, yes, we do certainly need, in these darkening times, to shut down the incessant and relentless entertainment, begin thoughtful introspection, and as Alan suggests, attend meetings. If none are about, we should form and conduct them. The internet could really be put to good use.
    Most of our problems, though not all, by any means, are results of our lack of diligence in selecting and electing the legislative and the executive branches of OUR government. The congressional clowns were installed by US!

  • Robert

    Alan, you captured the issue brilliantly….I just wanted to shout THANK YOU.

  • Elliot Lake

    You don’t have to be religious to be moral. But I agree that we’ve got a sick country on our hands; and the greed exemplified here also did not care who it hurt. That’s a bigger problem for society than the laziness aspect, and helps explain the Iraq debacle—and will also be harder to change than straight laziness would. “Devil take the hindmost.”

  • knafol

    Madoff ‘S prosecutors may not know that he(she) owns an estate in France.

    Madoff Ruth:
    Chateau des Pins Villa
    2 279 Chemin Garoupe
    06600 Antibes Juandes Pins
    Tel: from the States: 011 33 9 61445010
    Of interest???

  • Mohamed Shaheen

    Hi All,

    Madoff’s story reminds me of two principals that i learnt in technical analysis of financial markets, that it seems to be still valid. Fear and Greed from the scarcity of resources still dominates ones psychology when it comes to financial decisions.
    The problem is when such feelings are not governed by a framework of discipline and manners. Then the sky is the limit for misconduct.
    Mohamed E. Shaheen

  • Alan

    I’m glad that this article is still generating thoughtful reader comments – this is a hopeful sign. While we are thinking about Madoff’s role in Wall Street’s Wild West Show, a huge question lurks in the back of my mind: where did the $50 billion dollars actually go? I assume there were wire transfers into brokerage accounts, and a stream of payments to shareholders, brokerage expenses, etc. But then billions of dollars had to have been transferred to some other accounts someplace else – “laundered” as they say, or else it would still be sitting in the brokerage account. Well, where does the money trail lead? Why haven’t we heard anything about the money trail? Does it, maybe, lead someplace offshore that is too hot a political potato to even publicize? I wonder: is Bernie just the convenient “fall guy” to divert public rage from the much bigger investment banker scam artists who got bundles of subprime mortgages labeled AA Investment Grade securities by their “independent” rating agencies and squandered TRILLIONS of investor dollars when THEIR scam collapsed? Is there a much bigger picture here that Bernie’s trial conveniently diverts our collective attention from?