Bernie Madoff

The Day the Earth Went Broke. 2008. Byron King

What if you woke up one day and there was a flying saucer sitting in the middle of Central Park? It would change your view of the world, if not the universe, right? At least that’s the idea behind the newly released remake of the classic 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still. And what if you went to bed one night and thought that you had money on account in a fine silk stocking firm? What if you believed that you and your family were well provided for? What if you were sure that you had made all the right choices and done all the prudent things? You saved your money. You placed it with a reputable outfit. You were in the bluest of blue chips. And you woke up the next morning and it was all gone? Poof. Vanished. You’re broke! It would change your world, right? Maybe your life would fall off a cliff. Your standard of living would crater.

Well, this is exactly what happened to a lot of people a few days ago. These unfortunate souls invested their funds with Bernard Madoff’s firm in New York. Apparently, Madoff (pronounced “made off”) was running what The New York Times said “may be the largest Ponzi scheme in history.” He may have wiped out as much as $50 billion of other people’s money. $50 billion. No typo. For about 48 years, Madoff took in people’s money and claimed to invest it through his proprietary “split-strike conversion.” What’s that? Actually, I’ve never heard of it. It’s some sort of investment hocus-pocus that promises something for nothing. But Madoff always claimed he was making solid returns, in good times and bad, of 8-12% per year. Like clockwork. Such a deal.

Madoff’s investment firm was not for just anybody. You had to be somebody to be part of this firm. You had to be invited to invest with Madoff. So at fine country clubs up and down the East Coast, people would politely mention that “I invest my money with Madoff.” And other people would say, “Oh? Can I invest with Madoff too?” Then maybe they would get a discrete solicitation in the mail offering the opportunity to open a modest account. Maybe. Or maybe they wouldn’t get that solicitation. And the people who were rejected wanted to know why. “So how come my money is no good with Madoff?” they would ask. And thus did the cachet grow. People wanted in. “Hey, tell me how I can invest with this guy?” was the topic at many a dinner of lobster Newburg or veal a l’Oscar. Over the years, thousands of people, firms, businesses, charities, pensions, hedge funds and even government entities placed money with Madoff. And Madoff took it. With pleasure.

It was all a swindle. Madoff was taking in the new money and paying it out to the previous investors. He had no real system of investing. Madoff just dabbled in the markets, making some money here and losing it there. He lived well. He owned a yacht. He attended fancy parties. He was a patron of the arts and charity. He contributed generously to politicians in the Democratic Party (Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer and Charles Rangel, among others, in recent federal campaign filings). He was polite and distinguished. He was a counselor to many a family, always good for wise advice about how to make the next right move in life.

Indeed, Madoff pretended for decades that things were all right. But things weren’t all right. Madoff and his firm just took money from one group of people and paid it to others. He sent out elaborate statements, documenting how well people’s accounts were doing. Yet in the process, Madoff lost billions of dollars. The funds vanished into money heaven. And Madoff did it all under the noses of auditors, lawyers, accountants, tax agencies, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and a host of other pretend regulators. In short, Madoff is a financial psychopath. He’s a money-murderer. He is to money management what Ted Bundy was to unsuspecting young women.

Along the way, a few people raised suspicions. They said things like, “No one can deliver those kinds of results year after year. It’s impossible.” But many other people didn’t want to believe anything was wrong. The final whistle didn’t blow until Madoff’s sons turned him in to the FBI last week. (The sons claimed that they “knew nothing” about the scam.) And according to press reports, Madoff confessed everything to the FBI arresting agent, saying, “There is no innocent explanation.” Many of Madoff’s clients are from the Jewish community. That was Madoff’s heritage, and thus did Jews form much of the clientele that Madoff cultivated. According to The Wall Street Journal, some Jewish investors called Mr. Madoff “the Jewish bond” because of his solid and predictable returns.

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