Madoff pulled of the dubious “honor” of “Con of the Century”. Do you think he will spend even one day behind bars? Or even handcuffed?
(I had a poll here, but Poll Daddy no longer works since the WordPress “upgrade”.)
Perhaps the biggest warning sign was the secrecy with which the investment business was conducted. It was a black box, run by a tiny team at a very long arm’s length from the group’s much bigger broker-dealer. Clients too were kept in the dark. They seemed not to mind as long as the returns remained strong, accepting that to ask Bernie to reveal his strategy would be as crass as demanding to see Coca-Cola’s magic formula. Mr Madoff reinforced the message by occasionally ejecting a client who asked awkward questions.
The trading business was hardly pristine either. It had been probed for front-running (trading for its own account before filling client orders) and separately found guilty of technical violations. Some clients reportedly suspected that Mr Madoff was engaged in wrongdoing, but not the sort that would endanger their money. They thought he might be trading illegally for their benefit on information gleaned by his marketmaking arm.
This failure of due diligence by so many funds of funds will deal the industry a blow. They are paid to screen managers, to pick the best and to diversify clients’ holdings—none of which they did properly in this case. Some investors are understandably irate that their funds—including one run by the chairman of GMAC, a troubled car-loan firm—charged above-average fees, only to plonk the bulk of their cash in Mr Madoff’s lap. This is the last thing hedge funds need, plagued as they are by a wave of redemption requests.
Financial firms that dealt with Mr Madoff are bracing themselves for a wave of litigation as individual victims go after those with deep pockets. Hedge funds will also face pressure to accept further oversight. But the affair shows the need for the government to enforce its rules better, rather than write new ones, argues Robert Van Grover of Seward & Kissel, a law firm.
Mr Madoff’s investment business was overseen by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), but it failed to carry out any examinations despite receiving complaints from investors and rivals since as long ago as the late 1990s. As a Wall Street fixture, Mr Madoff was close to several SEC officials. His niece, the firm’s compliance lawyer, even married a former member of the team that had inspected the marketmaking division’s books in 2003—though there is no evidence of impropriety.
In a rare mea culpa, Christopher Cox, the SEC’s chairman, has called its handling of the case “deeply troubling” and promised an investigation of its “multiple failures”. Having already been lambasted for fiddling while investment banks burned, the commission is now likelier than ever to be restructured, or perhaps even dismantled, in the regulatory overhaul expected under Barack Obama. As The Economist went to press Mr Obama was expected to name Mary Schapiro, an experienced brokerage regulator, to replace Mr Cox.
The rules themselves will need changing, too. All investment managers, not just mutual funds, could now be forced to use external clearing agents to ensure third-party scrutiny, says Larry Harris of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business. Regulation of financial firms’ accountants may also need tightening. And more could be done to encourage whistle-blowing. Mr Madoff claims to have acted alone. But given the huge amount of paperwork required to keep his scam going, it seems unlikely that no one else knew about it.
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Can’t you just picture him laughing at everyone?