Dec. 18 (Bloomberg) --
Bernard Madoff’s amazing Ponzi scheme has put him in a league of
his own, for now. He shouldn’t be alone for long.
In the end, as with all the great frauds, Madoff’s
undoing was that he ran out of cash. For years, he paid returns to
early investors with money he raised from new investors, which is the
hallmark of every Ponzi scheme.
When the economy got tough, and his customers sought
about $7 billion in redemptions, Madoff didn’t have the funds. It was
around this time that he confessed to running a giant scam, the
authorities say. The losses, by Madoff’s estimate, might be $50
billion. Heaven knows how many clients of other money managers could
meet the same fate as redemption orders pour in.
It’s no great feat to arrest a man who tells a
federal agent “there is no innocent explanation” for his actions and
that he expects to go to jail. The Securities and Exchange Commission
blew many chances over the past decade to uncover his ruse, even after
It’s unclear why the SEC failed to stop Madoff,
whether because of corruption, a lack of smarts, a dearth of interest,
or some combination. We can say with confidence, though, that many
other huge frauds are still operating freely today -- and that the
government might not be inclined to intervene, even when it knows all
After all, Madoff’s scheme -- at least in spirit, if
not in its nefarious intent -- wasn’t much different than the business
models at some of the nation’s largest failed financial institutions.
Back in May, four months before it collapsed,
American International Group Inc. increased its dividend at the same
time it unveiled plans to raise $12.5 billion in capital. Later, when
its cash ran out, AIG got a government bailout, the size of which has
expanded to about $150 billion.
Whether you call that a Ponzi scheme or something
less sinister, AIG was paying old investors with money raised from new
investors. The same could be said of many banks that blew through
billions of dollars in freshly raised capital the past couple of
years, continuing to pay large dividends even as their balance sheets
So why have other Ponzi-esque operators emerged
scot-free (so far) with taxpayer bailouts, while Madoff gets pinched?
The Cox Theory
Sure, there is Madoff’s own confession, plus the
sheer brazenness of his conduct. And Madoff’s collapse doesn’t
threaten to bring down the global financial system, as far as we know.
Yet perhaps the best explanation can be found in a Dec. 4
speech by SEC Chairman
Christopher Cox on why the government needs an exit strategy to
unwind its myriad bailout commitments.
“From the standpoint of the SEC, the most obvious
problem with breaking down the arm’s-length relationship between
government, as the regulator, and business, as the regulated, is that
it threatens to undermine our enforcement and regulatory regime,” Cox
“When the government becomes both referee and
player, the game changes rather dramatically for every other
participant. Rules that might be rigorously applied to private-sector
competitors will not necessarily be applied in the same way to the
sovereign who makes the rules.”
Cox failed to mention that the SEC already was a
toothless tiger under his watch, long before this year’s bailouts took
root. Give him credit for candor, though. The chairman of the SEC is
now on record saying the government can’t be expected to enforce the
nation’s securities laws even-handedly at companies where its own
financial interests are at stake.
He’s right. The government can’t live up to the
task, even if it wanted to.
Madoff probably wasn’t the biggest Ponzi-scheme
artist out there. He’s just the first of his size to get nailed during
the current bear market.
He also knew he was fair game for the government.
The people running companies with taxpayer bailout money know there’s
an excellent chance they won’t be. As long as that remains true, this
crisis of confidence isn’t over by a long shot.
Weil is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his
To contact the writer of this column: Jonathan Weil
in New York at
Last Updated: December 18, 2008 00:04 EST