When Bernard Madoff allegedly admitted that his investment company was a “big lie”, few realised just how big — and even now, as reports of damage spread, no one is quite sure.
The alleged multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme revealed with Madoff’s arrest on December 11 may be the biggest in Wall Street history.
Already the scandal has sent shockwaves through Madoff’s ex-clients worldwide and underlined systemic problems at the heart of the US financial industry and the government agency meant to watch over it.
As the investigation enters its second week, no one can tell where the damage will end.
The list of victims is already staggering, ranging from a charity run by Hollywood mogul Steven Spielberg to Japanese bank Nomura and European banks, where exposure ran into the billions of dollars.
Prosecutors allege that Madoff has confessed to losing upward of $50-billion over years of running a pyramid scheme, where new investors were secretly fleeced to pay returns to existing investors.
What investigators don’t know is where all that money went. This will be one of the main focuses this week, as victims clamour for compensation.
Other key questions include whether Madoff acted alone, and why the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) failed to nail his alleged scam.
There were numerous red flags, not least the eerily consistent returns he provided investors and the bizarre fact that accounting for the huge enterprise was handled by a three-person office at an obscure firm outside New York.
Not only this, but the SEC actually opened an inquiry in 2006, following explicit accusations by a rival investor to Madoff, yet dropped the matter shortly after.
“I am gravely concerned by the apparent multiple failures over at least a decade to thoroughly investigate these allegations,” SEC chairperson Christopher Cox said.
The probe will “include all staff contact and relationships with the Madoff family and firm, and their impact, if any, on decisions by staff regarding the firm”, he said.
According to the Wall Street Journal, SEC investigators will be looking into Madoff’s niece and a former SEC official she married in 2007.
The actions of Madoff’s family members are an integral part of the extraordinary drama.
According to prosecutors, the affair first came to light when Madoff bared all to select employees. The Wall Street Journal says these were in fact Madoff’s two sons. But just a week later, Madoff was apparently unable to rely even on his sons for help.
Madoff, former pillar of Wall Street, former chairperson of the Nasdaq stock market and a mainstay of the powerful American Jewish community, had been required by the court to sign up four bail guarantors.
He could only find two — his wife and brother.
Following that humiliation, a court ordered Madoff to wear an electronic tag and to remain confined to his Manhattan apartment.
The mess has soured a public already disgusted with Wall Street as the source of the rotten practices that brought down a string of financial institutions in September.
In some quarters on the internet that anger has emerged as crude anti-Semitism that the Anti-Defamation League on Friday called “deeply offensive”.
“Jews are always a convenient scapegoat in times of crisis, but the Madoff scandal and the fact that so many of the defrauded investors are Jewish has created a perfect storm for the anti-Semites,” said Abraham Foxman, ADL national director. — AFP