Bernard Madoff is on his way to jail, having plead guilty to defrauding investors in a massive Ponzi scheme. While his victims thought they were investing with a legitimate manager, Madoff simply deposited clients’ money in a Chase Manhattan bank account and paid “returns” to earlier investors from the contributions of newer investors. The bulk of investors directly damaged by the failure of the scheme were banks, foundations, endowments, and trusts. Other investors include Kevin Bacon and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Most investors didn’t invest with Bernie Madoff directly; usually, funds were invested through at least an additional layer, such as a wealth manager or two. The further someone is separated from their money, the harder it is to understand the investments. For example, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Steven Spielberg relied upon a financial adviser named Gerald Breslauer, who invested his own money with Madoff in addition to his investors’.
Even though investors and their asset managers who decided to invest with Madoff are due some blame for investing without requiring concrete details of their investment, I do feel bad about their situation. Madoff was obviously a professional; he was able to convince otherwise smart people that he was running a legitimate operation. I’m confident that many of the middle-men who had access to Madoff and were investing on behalf of wealthy clients didn’t care about the existence of underlying investments as long as the quarterly statements showed growth, even if this growth was merely a work of fiction.
I feel bad for investors who found themselves as victims of this Ponzi scheme. In their position, I can understand putting faith in highly recommended money managers which reportedly search for the best investments balancing risk and reward for wealthy clients. Someone should have made sure there was an understanding of the underlying investments, but in theory, that is why wealthy clients pay asset managers.
Even early investors who managed to withdraw more than they invested, the only investors other than Bernard Madoff who made money in this Ponzi scheme, might deserve some pity if they weren’t complicit. But I do not believe any investor who withdrew more than they contributed should deserve any more restitution. The most judicial way to resolve the issue should be for every investor to receive back only their contribution, and to do so, anyone who withdrew more than they invested should be ordered to return their false profits back to others who were not able to withdraw as much as they invested.
This will reset the clock, providing no advantage for anyone. I would imagine that most of that money is gone, spent by Madoff, so I’m not sure how viable this plan would be.
What are your thoughts on Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme?
Published or updated March 13, 2009.