Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Curious Case of Bernard Madoff

It seems like not a day goes by since the Madoff scandal was uncovered that we don’t hear another story about another organization or individual that had all its net worth eradicated by investing directly or indirectly in Madoff’s elaborate Ponzi scheme. As an alumni of Tufts University, I got an email saying that Tufts had invested $20,000,000, or 2% of its endowment in Ascot Partners, which had in turn invested in Madoff. The money is now gone though the school is working to try to get as much of the money back as possible. So whether its Tufts, other universities, or charities, the worst part about the scandal to me is exactly that; Madoff’s greed crippled the institutions that actually add the greatest net benefit to our society. Cheating a Fortune 500 company is one thing. Cheating Steven Spielberg’s Wunderkinder Foundation which donated $3.3 million to Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center is something totally different, and even nauseating.

This brings up the $64,000 question - why? I’d have to rule out greed. Madoff had more money than he knew what to do with. He was a former NASDAQ chairman, a trusted financial advisor, and a man who’s funds always seemed to beat the market average. So he had the wealth, respect and admiration of his clients as well as the charities that he made donations to. (It’s interesting to think of all the charities he did donate to, because after his Ponzi scheme unraveled, many of the charities invested in him went bankrupt). So all I could come up with was the thrill of creating the most elaborate financial scheme of all time, and seeing how long it would last. People do all sorts of things for a thrill. All sorts of stupid, risky and counter-intuitive things. Except in Madoff’s case, his need for a thrill set the charitable and non-profit foundations of this country back several years and destroyed the wealth of thousands of individuals who put their trust in him.

So this begs the question, what if Madoff hadn’t been dealing with the well-healed in society? What if he’d, say, helped the mob invest their laundered money and guaranteed them some sort of return? What if he wasn’t representing people who believe in the legal system, but had crossed paths with organizations that don’t like playing games, and don’t deal well with people that steal from them? I think he wouldn’t have made the walk to the bullet-proof vest store before someone would have taken him out. So he should consider himself lucky that he’s under house-arrest in his ultra-luxurious Manhattan apartment, and that his court dates will be made under tight security. In the meantime, we can all think about what drives people to seek the ultimate thrill, and if bringing Madoff to justice will bring any closure to the lives of those most devastated by his hideous acts.

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