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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Could A Madoff-Like Ponzi Scheme Happen Again?

Bernard Madoff leaves Federal Court Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009 in New York. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

Bernard Madoff leaves Federal Court Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009 in New York. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

He’s known as inmate No. 61727-054 at the medium-security federal prison in Butner, North Carolina, where he is serving a 150-year sentence.

You probably know him better as Bernie Madoff, the convicted Ponzi schemer who cheated his victims out of $17 billion dollars — the largest financial fraud in U.S. history.

As we near the fifth anniversary of Madoff’s arrest, it’s worth asking: Can something like his Ponzi scheme happen again?

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson speaks to Diana Henriques, a senior financial writer for The New York Times and author of “The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust.”

Interview Highlights: Diana Henriques

On Madoff’s claim that he tried to return money but “they wouldn’t take it back”

“There’s no evidence in the research I’ve done, and talking with more than the 100 investors in the Madoff scheme over the years. None of them have ever mentioned anything that matches that set of circumstances. So I would be pretty skeptical. You are, after all, dealing with one of the most accomplished liars in the 21st century. But I think it does capture his current feelings about his investors … His remorse towards his victims is actually, it seems to me, decreasing as time goes by. His remorse for what he’s done to his family, on the other hand, is real and intense and if anything, increasing over time. So if you feel that Bernie Madoff needs to be sufficiently punished, I think he probably is, because the people he cares most about have cut him out of their lives and have been ruined by what he did.”

On former Madoff employees facing charges for aiding in the Ponzi scheme

“Their defense is that they were largely unsophisticated people about Wall Street, and in many cases that’s true. This was their first Wall Street job. In some cases, they joined Bernie right out of high school, and all they knew about how this was supposed to operate was what he told them. So there’s going to be some of this, you know, ‘I didn’t know better’ defense. And then there’s going to be, you know, ‘I always believed he really had the assets’ defense. These are, it should be said, mostly very low-level employees.”

On Madoff’s business partner

“He wasn’t doing it all by himself. We know he had the skilled help of his right hand man, Frank DiPascali, who has pleaded guilty. Frank DiPascali clearly knew about the fraud, helped with the fraud, organized a lot of the software that enabled Madoff to scale up his fraud. It’s kind of ironic … that Madoff’s legitimate firm was one of the trailblazers on Wall Street in adding automation to the process of trading stocks. Unfortunately, he was also one of the trailblazers in adding automation to conducting a Ponzi scheme. So he didn’t do it alone, although he stood in court when he pleaded guilty, and obviously perjured himself claiming that he did it alone.”

On whether it could happen again

“I’m afraid the answer is yes. One of the things that made this easy for Bernie is that he had custody of all the assets that he was supposed to own, so no one could check and see if they were actually there. That’s still the case. Investor managers are allowed to have custody of their assets … I don’t think enough has changed. Certainly in this very low interest rate environment, I think investors are increasingly desperate to find some meaningful return on their savings, and are going to be increasingly vulnerable to the plausible-sounding wizard who shows up with some slightly better than money market returns.”

Guest

  • Diana Henriquessenior financial writer for The New York Times and author of “The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust.” She tweets @dianabhenriques.

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