Friday, 2 January 2009

The Bernard Madoff Case

The case of Bernard Madoff and the missing millions is very intriguing ( BBC News ). The true picture of what actually happened will only become apparent many years down the line after what will be countless investigations and prolonged litigations. What is however clear is that a lot of shirts have been burnt! $50 billion and counting ( Yahoo News ), a life lost ( Independent ) and countless depressing stories of lives ruined ( Telegraph ).

In the absence of the full facts of this case; and acknowledging that a lot has been written about this case already (and a lot more will undoubtedly be written by commentators, speculators, gossips, insiders and their ilk); I will now attempt to add my own speculative thoughts on this sorry case.

How could so many seemingly rational people and institutions have been defrauded to such a large extent?

Access International Advisors
Spain's Banco Santander
Banque Benedict Hentsch Fairfield Partners SA
Boston philanthropist Carl Shapiro’s charitable foundation
BNP Paribas
Bramdean Alternatives Ltd
EIM Group
EFG International
Elise Wiesal Foundation for Humanity
Fairfield Greenwich Group
Fix Asset Management
GMAC chairman Jacob Ezra Merkin's Ascot Partners
Norman Braman
Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation
Julian J. Levitt Foundation
Royal Bank of Scotland
Societe Generale
Yeshiva University
......and list continue to rise
I think it is safe to assume that for all these people to have gotten involved with this man, he must have had some endearing qualities and a strong value proposition to the investors. After all it is reasonable to assume that the fraud might never have seen the light of day had it not been for the credit crunch and global financial meltdown. The attempts now to vilify him now may therefore be premature.

I postulate that this fraud is based on the human nature to do good and be seen to be doing good. The reason why I might want to do good will surely be different from why you (the reader) want to do good. However, we can converge on the notion that doing good has its merits. So Bernard approaches you to invest in this fund (this high performance fund) and also appeals to your charitable side. And if you are one of those that doing good translates to increasing your publicity or profile, then you are in because, Mr Madoff, a socialite, is very well connected in very high places. He was after all the former big cheese at the Nasdaq Stock Market and if anyone knows how to make money, he must. He convinces you to invest and you put all your life savings into the fund.

But there is a problem: Charity by their very nature is unlike other investment in which you expect a financial return. You put your money towards a good causes and you loose that money. The only return you will get is being recognised by the society for doing good work or just the satisfaction that your money is being deployed to help other people. I suspect the initial motivation of Mr Madoff to set up this fund was honourable but the other human nature: greed might have set in. Not necessarily greed from Mr Madoff himself but from some corporate and individual investors.

The greed issue:

It is possible that in the early days of this fund, Mr Madoff provided valuable return for his 'investors'. These returns may not be in form of direct cash growth on their investment but in terms of societal respect and clout. Making it more likely for the investors to succeed in their different business enterprises. However, as other see these, they want a piece of the pie! At this point Mr Madoff should have seen the obvious problem. The bigger the financial fund, the bigger the return to investors and without any substantial return backing up the fund, it is only a matter of time before the deck of card collapses. The scenario will then ensue whereby he will have to take from Peter to pay Paul! This case may have been sustained for a little longer had it not been for the fact that Peter and Paul, because of the credit crunch, want to be paid simultaneously. With no new Peter to take from, the whole system collapses (hence the
Ponzi scheme analogy).

The Losers:

No matter the greater good that might or might not have motivated Mr Madoff, he has presided over a devastating fiasco. My concerns are neither with Mr Madoff nor are they with the individuals or corporate bodies which invested in these funds simply for self glorification and exploitation of the charity concept for their own individual financial interests. My deepest concerns and regrets are reserved to those important charities who cannot now continue with their good works. And also to those individuals who were motivated by the demonstrable good work some of the charities to an extent that they put their life savings into the fund. The division between those who genuinely wanted to do good and those paying lip service to doing good is difficult to disentangle but each person will know deep down within themselves. It is those who genuinely wanted to do good by investing in this fund that are the real losers of this sorry saga. I hope Mr Madoff will have enough time to reflect on the devastating impact of his action and inaction.

Going forward:

Doing good remains a laudable goal as humans and this saga should not deter anyone who wish to make significant charitable contribution to the world around them. However, when you go down that path you must surely disentangle what is charity from what is you legitimate right to strive for your financial security. Disentangling these two must be the first step. The idea of spreading your risks is a useful one when making an investment decision and due dellegence is imperative.

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