Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lessons from a Disaster

Amid the wreckage and recriminations, investors are left wondering what might warn them of the next mega-fraud

victims of Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme finally had one of their wishes come true. After a judge denied bail, Madoff is going directly to jail, and he isn't passing "go." But Madoff's victims still want answers.

They want to know where the money went. They want to know who else was involved. And they want to know how they got scammed.

At the courthouse, many victims said there were no warning signs and Madoff himself, in his courtroom statement, backed them up on at least one count. "The clients receiving trade confirmations and account statements had no way of knowing by reviewing these documents that I had never engaged in the transactions," Madoff said during his guilty plea.

Maybe not. But to Harry Markopolos, the risk manager who alerted the SEC to Madoff's fraud in 1999 to no avail, the foul play seemed obvious. Madoff was supposedly using a complex trading system to generate returns, a strategy he dubbed the "split-strike conversion strategy." He would buy stocks in the Standard & Poor's 100 and sell options to reduce volatility. But Markopolos' firm was running a similar strategy and couldn't match the returns. A look at the returns was all it took for Markopolos to know something was up.

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