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December 14, 2008

Cringeworthy: Bernie Madoff With Their Life Savings



In 50 years, he went from rags to riches to utter ruin. A Wall Street legend, a former Chairman of NASDAQ, Bernie Madoff was a local boy who made good. This week he was busted for running what could be the biggest Ponzi scheme ever, with losses estimated at $50 billion. What happened to his investors' money?

For those not familiar with the concept, a Ponzi scheme is a pyramid scheme that uses the money of new investors to pay returns to earlier investors to make it appear profitable. If the reports are accurate, Bernie Madoff has been getting away with this for years, and may have financially wiped out friends, family and institutions alike, with some facing losses in the hundreds of millions.

Bernie Madoff is not a fly-by-night. He is a Wall Street institution. He counted as clients the owners of the Mets, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg, even the esteemed Yeshiva University. Charitable foundations invested their capital with him, as did hedge funds. Some will not survive the fallout; some have already been forced to close.

How did he get away with it? He knew the system inside and out - he helped design it. He was also very careful. He never promised, or delivered, above-average returns. In fact, one of his strong points was that he delivered the same consistent results year in and year out, regardless of what the market was doing. He also turned a lot of people away, which of course made them want to give him their money even more.

So even though his results were difficult to explain in layman's terms and impossible to duplicate by others, his firm escaped scrutiny by the SEC for years. Those in the know knew he couldn't do what he was doing without cheating somehow, but everyone was making money so they turned a blind eye to it.

Ironically, it was Bernie's employees who blew the whistle on him. The economic recession had made even his clients skittish, and many were demanding redemptions - money Bernie just didn't have. By Tuesday he told his employees he wanted to give them their holiday bonuses two months early. Smelling a rat, they demanded he show them proof of the firm's continued profits. Bernie stalled, saying he couldn't talk about it at the office because he didn't trust himself not to bawl like a bawlbaby. The employees, led by his two sons, went to Bernie's Upper East Side apartment, where he confessed everything to them, saying he was "finished" and had "absolutely nothing".

Bernie's assets, and those of Madoff Securities, have been frozen while the investigation continues. It may take months or years to unravel the twisted money trail left in its wake, and there's no word on whether any of the investors will get their money back. It is a shameful end to what was once a brilliant career.
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