“Many aspects of the Madoff affair are depressingly familiar: the lure of high returns with little risk, glowing testimonials from early investors, the sense of membership in a special club for those fortunate enough to be ‘in the know,’ the trust in the promoter due to religious or social affiliation, the vague documentation of investment strategy, the skimpy accounting, and the speed of the ultimate collapse.” – Weston J. Wellington.
There has been much written about Bernard L. Madoff, who is accused of running the largest financial fraud scheme in history, and all of it sordid and sad. The sorry tale raises serious questions and concerns about how well (or how poorly) the Securities and Exchange Commission, the so-called watchdog of the U.S. securities sector, did its job. It also makes you wonder how it was that so many “sophisticated” investors could have been so thoroughly fooled.
A recent New York Times column, Be Smart, but Don’t Think That You’re Special by Ron Lieber and Tara Siegel Bernard, summarizes the debacle as follows: “When wealthy investors are willing to hand over a sizable sum to a single money manager they heard about at the country club, certain first principles of investing bear repeating.”
Here are some useful quotes from the article:
… scores of people made outsize bets on his prowess without taking the time to fully understand what they were investing in.
All investors, but especially those with a high net worth, need to maintain a healthy sense of humility about their level of ignorance. Alternative investments, whether they are hedge funds or venture capital or private equity, can be complicated. They contain unpredictable levels of risk. But all too often, people are willing to overlook those risks because, well, everyone else is doing it. Or they simply place too much trust in too few hands.
Investing, in general, requires humility. Few people have enough of it. It is the reason so few people put most of their money in index funds, which track various asset classes rather than trying to pick the winners in each.
One problem with hedge funds is that they appeal to all the wrong instincts. They are for the privileged. Investors need to have a minimum net worth to qualify. In the case of the money managed by Mr. Madoff, many people seemed to have gotten in on it by belonging to the right country club.
“He was dealing with extremely wealthy individuals,” said Harold Evensky, president of Evensky & Katz, a financial planning firm in Coral Gables, Fla. “All too often, they make relatively easy marks because the pitch is, ‘You’re special, you can get something that other people can’t get.’ ”
But you are probably not special. Bill Gates is special, and he is the beneficiary of the best investment opportunities from the smartest people in the business. The Ford Foundation is special. The people who run Harvard and Stanford and Yale’s endowments are special.
You, however, are probably hearing about the second- or third- or fourth-tier ideas in the world of alternative investments. That does not mean the managers pitching them cannot make them work. But be honest with yourself: if you are in on them, how special could they really be, given the enormous demand for truly unique investment opportunities?
You may be rich and you may be smart. But smart about this sort of investing? Not so much.
There is no shame in not understanding Mr. Madoff’s split strike conversion strategy. Admit your ignorance, question your investment adviser’s certainty and seek a plain English explanation of the opportunity that is in front of you.
One hard part about investing in hedge funds is that some of the most successful ones will not say much about how they work. If they disclose too much about their tactics, others will copy them and their investors will be hurt. (So will the managers’ take-home pay.)
While Mr. Madoff’s supposed returns were fully available to all, investment advisers were less successful in understanding how he did what he did. “I knew that their returns were always good, but I knew that nobody could explain how they made their money,” said Mr. Weinberg. “In our attempts to look under the hood, it was impossible to ascertain what they were doing.”
Let’s review some of the “red flags.”
Madoff had complete control of his clients’ investment funds. This is absolutely contrary to the recommended procedure of having your funds held separately, in custody, at a broker-dealer firm which is regulated by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority and backed by the Securities Investor Protection Corporation. As an investor, you should be receiving copies of your statements directly from the (independent) custodian, not from your investment manager.
You need to understand the investment strategy that your investment manager is recommending. Avoid the “black box” approach to investing; look for investments that are clear and transparent.
Question any investment record that looks too steady over the long term. All investments have some risk, no investment is a “sure thing.” (Bear in mind that other investment managers could not duplicate Madoff’s investment performance, using similar strategies, so what “magic” did he possess that others did not?)
As the saying goes, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”
“Desperate times call for desperate measures.” – Proverb.
This week has been among the most volatile on record for Wall Street and financial markets around the world. We came as close to a financial meltdown as I ever hope to see.
In today’s New York Times, the headline story, Vast Bailout by U.S. Proposed in Bid to Stem Financial Crisis described a “financial crisis that Fed and Treasury officials say is the worst they have ever seen.”
“The federal government is working on a sweeping series of programs that would represent perhaps the biggest intervention in financial markets since the 1930s, embracing the need for a comprehensive approach to the financial crisis after a series of ad hoc rescues.
At the center of the potential plan is a mechanism that would take bad assets off the balance sheets of financial companies, said people familiar with the matter, a device that echoes similar moves taken in past financial crises. The size of the entity could reach hundreds of billions of dollars, one person said.”
How did we get here?
A previous post discussed one factor, the lack of risk management at various investment banks. In addition, we had lurched from one ad hoc case-by-case “solution” to another – from Bear Stearn’s forced buyout a few months ago, to the U.S. government’s take over of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to Lehman’s bankruptcy.
One of the world’s largest insurance company, AIG, was the next corporate giant to run out of money or the time to raise it. The cumulative effect of all of these unfavorable events was just too much for people to handle rationally.
According to the New York Times, by Thursday September 18th there was so much panic that “the Federal Reserve poured almost $300 billion into global credit markets and barely put a dent in the level of alarm.”
Buried deep within the Times article is this very upsetting quote:
“None of those actions, however, brought much catharsis or relief, with banks around the world remaining too frightened to lend to each other, much less to their customers.”
Banks afraid of lending to each other! Now, that’s a panic to remember.
Money Market Funds
And there’s more. Investors were worried about the safety of the $3.4 trillion invested in Money Market Funds. So much so, that the Feds have stepped in to reassure investors that these instruments remain ultra safe. Who ever thought that such reassurance would be necessary? (This totally unexpected concern resulted from one Money Market Fund suffering losses due to holding Lehman Brothers commercial paper.)
Short Selling Ban
And, finally, according to CNN.com:
“The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission took what it called ‘emergency action’ Friday and temporarily banned investors from short-selling 799 financial companies.
The temporary ban, aimed at helping restore falling stock prices that have shattered confidence in the financial markets, takes effect immediately.
“This will absolutely make a difference,” said Peter Cardillo, chief market economists at Avalon Partners. “Short sellers are going to have to cover their positions very heavily.”
Granted, banning short selling is a controversial policy. Whether it will have a long term effect remains to be seen.
Finally, a Comprehensive Plan
This certainly seems like a comprehensive approach to all of the fear that has been present. The Feds to the rescue! Confidence has been restored. Democrats and Republicans actually working together! Without a doubt, “desperate times call for desperate measures.”
Orthodox free-market conservatives might argue that the markets would have (eventually) sorted all this out without government intervention. I, however, don’t think so.
How this will all play out remains to be seen. We are certainly seeing one of the strongest stock market rallies ever. Will this continue? Have we seen the bottom? No one knows, but it is a strong possibility.
In any event, we continue to recommend well-diversified, properly structured portfolios and a long-term buy-and-hold philosophy. No one we know was smart enough to have bought at precisely 1 PM on Thursday, September 18, 2008, the exact bottom of the decline.