Wednesday, December 17, 2008

When will Madoff sell the movie rights?

Scam merchants tend to hang out at the moolah factory, so we could have guessed that somewhere amid the billions being generated (not earned) in the world's main financial markets – the epicentre of bubbleland – there would be an industry of wrongdoing, ranging from tawdry fiddles to grand theft.

But who, when and how?

Now the bubble has popped, answers are beginning to emerge. Jerome Kerviel's unauthorised trading at Société Générale cost his employer £3.7bn and seemed like a big deal at the time. It was, however, little more than an amuse-bouche compared with Bernard Madoff's alleged $50bn feast of fraud.

Not for him the usual victims: widows, orphans and ingenuous first-timers at the wheel of misfortune. No, sir. Mr Madoff dealt with only the super-rich: hedge funds of impeccable repute, owners of sports franchises, newspaper publishers, Florida's country-clubbers, Gnomes of Zurich and high-profile celebrities. Many of those who should have known better were, it seems, cleaned out.

Based appropriately in New York's Lipstick Building – where better to kiss your cash goodbye? – Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities is set to become symbolic of a boom that was based largely on illusion: the suspension of too much spending above insufficient income on elastic bands of debt.

For millions of consumers who now live in fear of unemployment and insolvency, the money was never there. It was all a fantasy. This appears to be the case also with Mr Madoff's investment genius. His steady and much coveted returns of 1pc to 1.2pc a month did not exist. All those cheques from high rollers and blue-chip institutions have gone up in smoke.

The scale of this achievement, if indeed it turns out to be a gigantic fraud, cannot be over-stated. Hoodwinking a dozen or so of the world's most prestigious banks, including HSBC, BNP Paribas and Banco Santander, would require time, effort and – let's admit it – genuine talent. Indeed, had Mr Madoff, a former Nasdaq chairman, deployed his considerable charm in a more conventional way, who knows what he might have accomplished?

As investigators trawl through the debris of wrecked dreams and shattered reputations, there are several aspects of this affair that do not stack up, not least of which is, how did Mr Madoff lose $50bn? Where did it all go?

He may have had a bad run (even the best fund managers make poor calls) but to wipe out $50,000,000,000 takes some doing. It is equal to the combined sub-prime writedowns and losses at Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase, Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse, or 40 times Nick Leeson's blow-out at Barings.

Mr Madoff is alleged to have confessed. This is not what one expects from alleged white-collar criminals, especially in America. More typically, they hire a posse of fancy lawyers who manufacture clouds of legalistic chaff to deflect incoming missiles from lawmen and clients. All charges are invariably denied.

Then there is the issue of whether there were accomplices. Mr Madoff, it is understood, claims to have acted alone. But how could he have fixed mountains of paperwork, tax filings, trade confirmations and money transfers? Did none of his 200 staff work out that the boss might have been peddling a Ponzi scheme? If Mr Madoff was playing at Ratman, someone else would, surely, be robbing.

The regulators, of course, will be chewing on nerve pills. Where were the Securities and Exchange Commission officers? Was nobody curious that Madoff's books, through which a king's ransom sloshed, were being audited by a three-man partnership, operating from a single office in New York?

The most puzzling aspect of all, however, is why so many premier-league investment houses, who charge clients handsome fees for the task of managing their money, were handing over vast sums to Mr Madoff, (for yet another slice of the action) to do the heavy lifting for them?

One assumes that the world's biggest banks can hire the world's biggest brains. If money talks, all the necessary intellectual firepower should already be on their payrolls. Yet many, apparently, had such little faith in their ability to protect and enhance customers' wealth that they outsourced the task to a miracle worker (he defied gravity) without conducting due diligence.

As yet, there is no romantic twist to this tale, but don't bet against it. Hollywood must be licking its chops: unlike his funds, Madoff The Movie will make somebody rich.

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