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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A typical Jewish-American success story

The greatest fraud in the history of the US was exposed in December 2008. Bernie Madoff perpetuated a $50 billion ponzi scheme fraud on his formerly wealthy investors. The size of the losses is mind boggling - three times the size of the proposed bailout of the US automakers. His entire investment fund has been a big lie for decades. The immorality of his actions is incomprehensible. Charities have been wiped out, the life savings of entire families have been lost, and innocent lives have been ruined. The potential sentence of 20 years in a country club prison and $5 million fine is not nearly equal to the pain caused by this man’s immoral evil actions. This man was well respected by the Wall Street investment community, a prominent Jewish philanthropist, and part of the wealthy high society crowd located in West Palm Beach. This begs the question, if this man has been running this type of scam for decades, how many more are out there on Wall Street? After a year of never ending tales of scandal, fraud, lies, greed and mismanagement, this episode should be the final straw which convinces the American public the investment game is rigged and they do not have a chance.

This tragedy is a failure of morality, a failure of regulation, failure of unbridled capitalism and a failure of common sense. Bernie Madoff started his firm Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities in 1960 with $5,000. It started as a classic American success story and is ending as an American tragedy. Mr. Madoff had a spectacular rise on Wall Street. His firm was one of the founding members of the NASDAQ. He emerged as one of the key leaders in the rise of the NASDAQ and eventually became Chairman of its Board. Madoff served as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Sy Syms School of Business at Yeshiva University, as well as Treasurer of its Board of Trustees. An college class in ethics in his youth may have benefitted Mr. Madoff’s clients. His firm was one of the top market makers on Wall Street. His estimated net worth grew to between $200 and $300 million. He adapted easily to his rise from humble beginnings to immense wealth. He owns estates in Roslyn, N.Y., Montauk, Long Island, a luxury apartment that occupies the entire12th floor on Manhattan's Upper East Side valued at more than $9 million. He also owns mansions in Palm Beach and France and is a member of the Palm Beach Country Club. He also possess a 55-foot fishing boat named "Bull." After this week’s revelations, it seems appropriate that one of George Carlin’s words you can’t say on TV should have been added to “Bull”. His offices were located in the famous “Lipstick” building in NYC. The building is famous for being shaped like a lipstick case. The building could be considered shaped like a less flattering sexual object, and is more fitting to what Mr. Madoff did to his investors.

Search "The Lipstick Building" on the net.

The words on Mr. Madoff’s website now seem gravely ironic. "In an era of faceless organizations ... Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC harks back to an earlier era in the financial world: The owner's name is on the door. Bernard Madoff has a personal interest in maintaining the unblemished record of value, fair-dealing, and high ethical standards that has always been the firm's hallmark." It is doubtful that the words “high ethical standards” will grace Mr. Madoff’s gravestone. Even as his ponzi scheme was unraveling, his high ethical standards led him to try and distribute his $200 to $300 million to family, friends, and employees before the victims of his crimes could attempt to recover some of their money. It is too soon to conclude what the long term effects of this scandal will have on our financial system. It is likely that the name Bernard Madoff will go down in the history of ignominy with Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky, Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers, and Dennis Kazlowski as examples of the most disgraceful behavior in the history of our financial markets.

How can a man live such a Big Lie for decades and sleep soundly at night? Aspects of Theodore Dreiser’s classic novel An American Tragedy are evident in this heartrending story. Dreiser’s theme of the desire to rise up socially and financially in modern America holding the very seeds by which such desires are denied is clearly apparent in this tale of woe. The lure of materialism isn't solely the acquisition of wealth and goods, but the attraction such wealth and goods holds over people, often at the expense of other values. As Mr. Madoff’s success grew, his desire to attain ever higher social status must have led him to take more risk and use illegal means to continue up the social ladder. This overwhelming aspiration for acceptance and accolades in the wealthiest high society of Manhattan and West Palm Beach, led this man to risk everything. The result has been a tragedy of epic proportions. This fraud is reminiscent of the 1938 indictment of the respected former President of the NYSE Dick Whitney for looting his firm, friends, relatives, and charities of millions to fund his high society lifestyle. Those who forget the past are condemned to relive it.

The definition of a ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that involves paying abnormally high returns to investors out of the money paid in by subsequent investors, rather than from net revenues generated by the business. Mr. Madoff’s investment firm ponzi scheme was incredibly unsophisticated. He was spectacularly successful at marketing his fund to the ultra-rich Jewish communities in New York and Florida as well as Europeans at ski competitions attended by the rich ruling elite. His fund generated returns of 12% to 13% per year consistently for decades. The fund only had five losing months since 1996. The market has had dramatic monthly moves over this time. It is a virtual statistical impossibility for an investor to have such a consistent record through bull and bear markets. Madoff refused to provide his clients online access to their accounts. He sent out accounting statements by mail, whereas most hedge funds email statements and allow them to be downloaded via computer for easier analysis by investors. His books were audited by a three-person accounting firm, Friehling & Horowitz, operating out of a 13-by-18 foot location in an office park in New York City’s northern suburbs. A $17 billion fund could not possibly be audited by one partner and one accountant. These facts were all warning signals that many skeptical investment analysts had pointed out years ago to the SEC and in articles in Barron’s.

It was not topnotch undercover investigating that revealed this fraud. The SEC investigated Madoff’s firm twice in the last eight years and found nothing. Madoff’s son-in-law was an SEC official. The SEC has an annual budget in excess of $900 million and has failed miserably in its mission to protect investors. The oversight of hedge funds has been virtually non-existent during the Bush administration. Again, Alan Greenspan, the patron saint of free markets, proved his prescience in 2000 when he campaigned before Congress to not regulate hedge funds. He described hedge funds as “a vibrant trillion-dollar industry dominated by U.S. firms. They are essentially free of government regulation, and I hope they will remain so. Why do we wish to inhibit the pollinating bees of Wall Street?” These killer bees have contributed greatly to the biggest financial destruction of wealth in history. What are the odds of one man being on the wrong side of every major financial debacle in our country in the last ten years? Mr. Greenspan wins the grand prize again.

What brought down Bernie Madoff was not his guilty conscious, but redemptions of $7 billion from investors that overwhelmed his ability to pay them from new funds. The story that he wants everyone to believe is that he was the only one who knew about the fraud. His brother, two sons, niece, and other family members held high level positions in the firm. It is beyond believability that none of these people knew what was going on. A $50 billion fraud can not be perpetuated by one man acting alone. It certainly appears that as a 70 year old man, he is attempting to shield his family members who should also be spending 20 years in prison. If he was truly remorseful, he would have done the world a favor and taken a swan dive off his 12th floor balcony. Instead, he will hire high powered lawyers, using his phony wealth, to extend his life of luxury secluded in his 12th floor hideaway. This is a man who gives Ponzi a bad name.

Ultimately, Mr. Madoff will be judged by his Maker. A special place in Hell awaits him, next to Hitler, Stalin, and Timothy McVeigh. The victims of his crimes are many. The Robert I. Lappin Charitable Foundation has lost its entire $8 million endowment; The North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System and the Texas-based Julian J. Levitt Foundation have lost millions; the town of Fairfield, Conn. has seen 15 percent of its retiree pension fund totaling $42 million vanish; Maxam Capital Management run by Sandra Manzke has been wiped out; Tremont Capital Management has lost millions; and thousands more have lost their life savings. A personal story told by Minyanville writer Justin Rohrlich about his grandfather addresses the true heart braking tragedy of this man’s immoral actions.

A personal account from James Quinn

“Last night, it happened to my 88 year-old grandfather Carl. World War II veteran, Captain in the Army, saw combat in the Philippines. His father was a dry-cleaner, his grandfather was a fabric dyer on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century. My granddad was scheduled to go into the invasion of Japan before we dropped the bomb. Instead of going into certain death, he came home and went to the City College of New York on the GI Bill.

Armed with a mathematics degree, my Grandfather eventually landed a job at Neuberger Berman. Became a CFA. Was a director of Tishman Speyer. Helped build Roosevelt Raceway. Ran the pension fund for Price Chopper supermarkets. I had dinner with my grandfather on Wednesday night. Over sushi, he told me about how amazing Bernie Madoff was. This was a common refrain in our conversations. “While the rest of the market is tanking, Madoff is up for the month.” Today, I bought the New York Post on the way to the subway. Bernie Madoff was on the front page. His fund was described as a “Ponzi scheme” that lost $50 billion. My phone rang. It was my mother.

“Your grandfather just lost everything,” she said.”

This blackest of marks in investment history will forever alter the faith that investors have in investment managers, financial advisors, mutual funds, and hedge funds. Americans are being buried under a blizzard of lies. This is truly an American Tragedy.

The Sun Will Set For You
And the shadow of the day
Will embrace the world in grey
And the sun will set for you
Linkin Park – Shadow of the Day

There is a reason old sayings become old sayings. They have an underlying truth that spans the test of time. Some old sayings that apply to our current economic and investment environment are:

If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
The cards are stacked against you.

The Madoff affair illustrates that rich people can be just as gullible and foolish as poor people. In their quest for social status and fitting in with the “smart” money crowd, affluent people all over the country put their life savings into the hands of this criminal. No investor can generate positive returns using the same strategy through all market cycles. Warning bells should have been going off. Diversification is the golden rule of investing. The foolishness of these people putting every dime with one man is maddening. Mr. Madoff’s nickname, “the Jewish T-bill”, is fitting today with T-bills providing negative yields.

Another American Tragedy is in the making. A much bigger Ponzi scheme that will shock every person in America is still operating. It is being conducted by the U.S. government and your elected politician leaders. It is called our National Budget. With most of our spending on automatic pilot, the aging of the baby boom generation will put tremendous strain on our economic system in the coming years. As you can see, Medicare costs will explode over the next 40 years. The increasing debt will result in interest payments on the debt becoming the largest expenditure in the federal budget. The longer we wait to address this unavoidable train wreck, the more likely it will result in generational war between the baby boomers and younger generations. Mandatory spending for agriculture subsidies, unemployment benefits, civilian and military pensions and health benefits continues to grow. The ponzi aspect of this system is that we continue to pay out benefits by printing money. We are obligated to pay $53 trillion that we do not have. Social Security has run at a surplus since its inception. The money is not in some lockbox. Your trustworthy leaders have spent all of the surpluses ever generated by Social Security to keep the ponzi scheme going.

A typical Jewish-American success story

Conclusion:

The US is a house of mega scams and ponzi schemes

2 Comments:

James Burnside said...

It's not a "Jewish" thing. It's a "greed" thing. Madoff is as bad or worse than Ken Lay, who was a Methodist, I believe. What really galls people as well, is that BM (a fitting set of initials) is out on bail, while someone who may have snatched a purse with $100 inside would be on Riker's Island right now. But Bernie Madoff is suffering through house arrest in a $7 million penthouse apartment. This has nothing to do with religion, and everything to do with the breakdown of the human condition.

a sane voice ... said...

Hi James,

You have a very good point there. Greed is at the root of such evil, and greed has no religion.

However, looking at the history of Money, I find some Jews at the forefront of devising new ways of handling and concentrating wealth.

I would accept that most Jews are as poor as those of any other religion, and they suffer from the greed of others as much as any one else.

Alan Greenspan was a Jew, was he not?