Meet Bernie Madoff, the money murderer...
IMAGINE YOU WOKE UP one day and there was a flying saucer sitting right in the middle of Central Park, says Byron King for Whiskey & Gunpowder. It would change your view of the world, if not the universe. Right?
That's the idea, at least, behind the newly released remake of the classic 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still. But what if you went to bed one night and thought you had money on account in a fine silk stocking firm...that you and your family were well provided for...because you had made all the right choices and done all the prudent things, placing your money with a reputable outfit...the bluest of blue chips...and yet 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. So 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.
But 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 has played 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 according to The Wall Street Journal, some Jewish investors called Mr. Madoff "the Jewish bond" because of his solid and predictable returns. Now with Madoff's demise, there is an entire swath of Jewish "old money" gone down the tubes. There are personal wipeouts that will devastate entire extended families. The legacy economy of many trust fund families is wrecked. A lot of country club bills, condo dues and school tuition statements are about to go unpaid.
This will impact communities from Boston to Palm Beach and even overseas as far away as Buenos Aires and Johannesburg. That is, for some overseas Jewish families, Madoff held the "safe" money, the strategic reserve for when it was time to pack the bags and move away. (An old African expression comes to mind: "When the Jews leave, it's time to leave. When the Portuguese leave, it's too late to leave.")
Some charities are hitting the rocks too, totally wiped out by Madoff. There are several hedge funds going down like the Titanic, with one fund losing nearly $1.8 billion. Just in Geneva, Switzerland, a number of banks reportedly may be out of $4 billion invested with Madoff. French bank BNP Paribas is said to be on the hook. Japan's Nomura Holdings, which markets Madoff's funds, also has been swept up in the financial wipeout. HSBC is taking a serious hit. Kingate Management of Bermuda has reportedly invested part of its $2.8 billion fund with Madoff.
So it makes me wonder. How bad is it out there? How many other Ponzi schemes are there besides Madoff's? How many more financial psychopaths are ginning up fake account statements? How many little old ladies are there out there who think they have money in an account, but it's all just some big scam? How many more bad banks? How many bad brokerage houses? How many more bad companies with bad stock? How many more bad government entities with bad finances and worse bonds? How many bad pension funds?
It drives home the point of wondering whom you can trust. And how bad is it with even the US government? Do you really trust government statistics, like the one for the rate of inflation or unemployment? And how about the numbers in the national budget accounts? We're spending how much? Does money even have any meaning to the people who have the power to appropriate it? Our whole national accounting process has turned into an intergenerational Ponzi scheme.
Really, our $10 trillion national debt is not enough? We are looking at trillion-dollar deficits in just the next year or two. How long can it last? And whom can you believe in any position of authority? So Bernard Madoff had a "system" for investing? And Ben Bernanke has a "system" for managing the monetary policy of the country, right? Hank Paulson has a "system" for managing the Treasury accounts? And Congress and the president – G.W. Bush, and after him B.H. Obama – have a "system" for spending the nation's limited wealth on important things, yes?
How do you know that you don't own a big fat piece of nothing? It's why I believe you need to own some real gold and silver. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: You need to own some gold and silver in addition to whatever else you own on account. Just do it! Go out and Buy Gold. Today. When all else fails, if you have the precious metals, you still have something you can hold in your hand.