A Dozen Things you can Learn from the Anti-Models that are Bernard Madoff and his Victims


You can learn a lot in life from anti-models since they teach you the sort of person you do not want to be and things you do not want to do. This applies both to Madoff and his victims. As Charlie Munger likes to say, it is often wise to: “Invert!” It would be fantastic if people like Madoff and his victims did not exist but as long as they do, you can learn from them who you don’t want to be and what not to do. Charlie Munger says: “Figure out what you don’t want and avoid it and you’ll get what you do want.”

I decided the write this post since I read a few reviews of the recent Madoff mini-series on ABC that is said to portray him as less than the narcissistic psychopath that he is. I refuse to watch it. But let’s be clear: everyone isn’t “doing what he did.” He isn’t “just another dirty little fish in a dirty pond.” Everyone in finance does not have fraud as a business model. As we walk though his public statements and accounts of his behavior we see a consistent pattern: he is an asshole.

ABC News reports; “Based on the $17.5 billion that investors originally put into Madoff’s hands, victims would recover about 63 cents on the dollar for every approved claim of their principle investment.” The final account statements of the investigators revealed about  $47 billion in fake profit and of course none of that will be recovered. Through December 4 of last year, the trustee for the Madoff Victim Fund had reviewed 51,071 claims.

Now for the usual dozen quotes and some analysis:

1. “It’s a proprietary strategy. I can’t go into it in great detail.” (May 2001) The lesson is to not let psychological bias like authority or scarcity make you not rational. Madoff worked the flaws that people like Professor Robert Cialdini write about like a master manipulator. For example, when asked to reveal what he was doing to generate his returns Madoff would say that he would give people their money back if they wanted, but he would not reveal what he did. People loved the steady financial returns and mostly did not take their money out despite getting zero information about what Madoff was doing with their money. One big question when it comes to some Madoff investors is whether they believed his returns came from front running and whether they were they were turning a blind eye to that. As Jason Zweig points out the steady financial returns were a red flag: “Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC reported gains of roughly 1% a month like clockwork, with nary a loss, for two decades. Why did that freakishly smooth return not set off alarms among current and prospective investors?” My theory is that Madoff investors wanted the smooth financial returns so badly the psychological denial kicked in. “It was like a religion,” Swiss banker Werner Wolfer, said of the promise of steady returns, which would be echoed by other acolytes. “These people firmly believed in the story.”

2. “Today, basically, on Wall Street, the big money is made by taking risks.” As Howard Marks points out: “If risky investments could be counted on for higher returns, then they wouldn’t be risky. And if investments weren’t risky, then they probably wouldn’t appear to promise higher returns.” Buying a bargain is the best way to outperform a market. A great venture capitalist, for example, buys optionality at a bargain. They do not dial up risk. Risk comes from not knowing what you are doing. Investing in a fund without a third party trustee holding the assets is not just risky, it is stupid.

3. “In today’s regulatory environment, it’s virtually impossible to violate rules … but it’s impossible for a violation to go undetected, certainly not for a considerable period of time.” (2007) Ironically, the longer Madoff’s scam went on, the harder it was to catch him since people assumed that he would have been caught long before if he was cheating. He had lots of industry connections and positions. The more trustworthy he seemed, the more trustworthy he seemed [repeat]. At a point, when a person has built a reputation many people start to assume that other people have done the due diligence. The lesson is:  do your own thinking and due diligence.

4. “A guy who comes on like he’s Columbo,” but who was “an idiot,” Madoff said, as recorded in the extraordinary exhibit 104, a twelve-page account of the interview that is part of Kotz’s report. Madoff is no ironist. His disdain for the SEC is professional, even if the agency’s incompetence saved his skin for years—all Columbo had to do was make one phone call. “[It’s] accounting 101,” (2010)  The SEC’s own extensive report http://www.sec.gov/news/studies/2009/oig-509.pdf admits that they should have caught him earlier. There were plenty of red flags. Others were convinced that he was only front running and at worst would get his hand slapped. “They were convinced that the risk was only that the Securities and Exchange Commission would do something about breaches of the Chinese wall in the Madoff organization,” the banker Wolfer said. In the worst case, he said, “what could be expected was that at a certain point the SEC could say stop.” ABC news reported that: “The SEC said in the last six years it has brought more than 600 enforcement actions involving Ponzi schemes and other frauds against more than 2,000 individuals and companies.” The lesson again is: do your own due diligence.

An investigation by the SEC Inspector General found “that despite three examinations and two investigations being conducted, a thorough and competent investigation or examination was never performed.” Madoff’s spin was never challenged by the SEC investigators, the Inspector General found. “When Madoff provided evasive or contradictory answers to important questions in testimony, they simply accepted as plausible his explanations,” the Inspector General wrote. And most damning, was the failure of the SEC staff to make a single phone call to confirm that the shares of stock Madoff claimed he had bought actually existed.

5. “They call me either Uncle Bernie or Mr. Madoff. I can’t walk anywhere without someone shouting their greetings and encouragement, to keep my spirit up. It’s really quite sweet, how concerned everyone is about my well-being, including the staff … It’s much safer here than walking the streets of New York.” In prison Madoff has some fellowship from some other assholes. Someone said about him before going to prison:  “Bernie is not what you would call Mr. Nice Guy, not someone you would want to have a beer with. He was imperial, above it all. If he didn’t like the conversation, he would just get up and walk away. It was: ‘I’m Bernie Madoff and you’re not.’”

6. “Well, that’s what I did.” Said to another prisoner who said that stealing from old ladies was “kind of f–ked up.” “Bernie was telling a story about an old lady. She was bugging him for her money, so he said to her, ‘Here’s your money,’ and gave her a check. When she saw the amount she says, ‘That’s unbelievable,’ and she says, ‘Take it back.’ And urged her friends [to invest].” (June 2010) Saying to a mark at first: I won’t take you money was a classic Madoff approach. Jason Zweig descried how authority and scarcity were used to rope clients into the fraud:  

“The initial marketing often was in the hands of what one source described as “a macher” (the Yiddish term for a big shot). At the country club or another exclusive rendezvous, the macher would brag, “I’ve got my money invested with Madoff and he’s doing really well.” When his listener expressed interest, the macher would reply, “You can’t get in unless you’re invited…but I can probably get you in.”

 7. “Everyone was greedy. I just went along.” (2011)  “People just kept throwing money at me,” Madoff related to a prison consultant who advised him on how to endure prison life. “Some guy wanted to invest, and if I said no, the guy said, ‘What, I’m not good enough?’ ” One day, Shannon Hay, a drug dealer who lived in the same unit in Butner as Madoff, asked about his crimes. “He told me his side. He took money off of people who were rich and greedy and wanted more,” says Hay, who was released in December. People, in other words, who deserved it.”

8. “I certainly wouldn’t invest in the stock market. I never believed in it. Most people lose money because of the emotional difficulty involved.” Certainly most mistakes in investing are psychological, but to not be in the stock market with some of your assets in the long term is foolish. But you must think long term and be able to stay “steady as she goes” during inevitable and unpredictable draw downs.

9. “F–k my victims. I carried them for twenty years, and now I’m doing 150 years.” Madoff probably believes this still since he is a fully baked narcissist. Some people are born without empathy. Fortunately, most of these people are just assholes and doing thing like being lousy parents instead of being outright criminals.

10. “It was a nightmare for me. I wish they caught me six years ago, eight years ago.” This is bullshit like most everything Madoff ever said.  His behavior in the weeks before his arrest did no exhibit relief: “He seem[ed] to be in a coma.” He was sitting in his office, “staring off into space. He began taking his blood-pressure every 15 minutes, refused to look at his mail, and was constantly meeting with the heads of his feeder funds and Frank DiPascali, ‘the go-to guy for the investment-advisory business.’” “Diana Henriques, Madoff was a ‘fluent liar. The magic of his personality is how easy it is to believe him — almost how much you want to believe him,’ she tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. ‘For example, he assured me in that first interview — and in emails subsequently that we exchanged — that he wasn’t going to talk to other writers. … Of course, it wasn’t true, he was talking to others. It was all a lie.” “Money was flowing out, in part, because he had left himself so vulnerable by accepting very liquid accounts. Other hedge fund managers around the world were being faced with demands from their investors who wanted their money back. Some of their money was locked up in [not] liquid investments or stocks that had suddenly taken a nosedive, but if you had money with Madoff, you thought, ‘That’s pretty liquid money. That’s almost like my money market fund.’ So that was the first money [people and hedge funds investing in many places] started to tap to repay their investors, and it became this deadly game of dominos falling, where they would take money out to pay their investors and that would require their feeder fund to take money out of Madoff — and Madoff kept paying those redemptions, but he could see far more money was flowing out than was flowing in. He told me that by about Thanksgiving of 2008, he was pretty sure he just wasn’t going to keep this going.”

11. “They told me that watch was worth $200,000.” Said to other prisoners after seeing the watch sold at auction for $900.  Being an expert is domain specific and so is working a scam. Circle of competence! One could argue that this is a form of Murray Gell-Mann amnesia.

12. “It’s H2O.” When asked where he had hidden his fortune making a gesture of water slipping through his hand. This jerk spent a lot of money – in the end he ran short of cash. He has lived a wasted life. Pathetic is as pathetic does.


Jason Zweig: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB122912266389002855

Madoff’s Weapons of Influence   http://www.rationalwalk.com/?p=119   

The Bernard Madoff Case: Trust Takes Another Blow http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/the-bernard-madoff-case-trust-takes-another-blow/

Madoff Enablers Winked at Suspected Front-Running   http://goodharv.com/blog/?p=146   

Examining Bernie Madoff, “The Wizard Of Lies” http://www.npr.org/2011/04/26/135706926/examining-bernie-madoff-the-wizard-of-lies  

Bernie Madoff, Free at Last http://nymag.com/news/crimelaw/66468/  

ABC:  http://abcnews.go.com/US/bernie-madoff-sleuth-harry-markopolos-warns-ponzi-scams/story?id=36578436


3 thoughts on “A Dozen Things you can Learn from the Anti-Models that are Bernard Madoff and his Victims

  1. One thing you didn’t mention was that Madoff didn’t charge any fees for his “fund.” If investors were weary about the results, this was a very robust incentive to give him a try.

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  2. This is interesting from the perspective of what Bernie demonstrated through his actions. Bernie self-involvement and disregard for the harm he was inflicting on others seems to be the norm for criminals whose crimes are not driven by desperation. What is missing is the inverse: What were his victims thinking and how were they interacting with Mr. Madoff? I recall the 60 Minutes piece; they showed Bernie talking to a group of his “investors”. As he was deriding the SEC, a lady was nodding and smiling. She was obviously enjoying Bernie making fun of the incompetents in the SEC. Her prejudices and contempt for the very organization that was there for her protection made everything Bernie said golden, and allowed her to be the perfect victim. I wonder that if she lost any money in this ponzi scheme did she blame the SEC or Mr. Madoff.

    And of course the irony in this was Mr. Madoff and his fan was essentially correct. The SEC was blind to his malfeasance.

  3. “The more trustworthy he seemed, the more trustworthy he seemed [repeat]. ” ~ this reminds me of the saying “When everyone is thinking the same thing, someone is not thinking”. As you have noted, one’s own due diligence is a very critical task that cannot be overlooked or discarded lightly. And one of the very first lessons I learned in understanding and trading capital markets – if you don’t understand the trade, you shouldn’t be in it. Get piece, thanks for sharing!

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