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Sunday, March 14, 2010

How I Got the Goods on Madoff, and Why No One Would Listen

Business Week / By Harry Markopolos, with Frank Casey, Neil Chelo, Gaytri Kachroo, and Michael Ocrant
Harry Markopolos and his ad hoc team of sleuths spent eight years trying to expose Bernie Madoff as a fraud—but the SEC turned a deaf ear. His new book tells the sad tale

"I'm a quant," writes Harry Markopolos. "I look at numbers the way other people read books." That ability allowed him to smell a rat in 1999 when he encountered the remarkable returns claimed for a secretive hedge fund run by Bernard Madoff, a renowned Wall Street broker-dealer. Markopolos and two colleagues at asset manager Rampart Investment began looking into Madoff's operation. They soon concluded he couldn't produce those results legally.

The following excerpt describes Markopolos' 2002 trip to Europe with Thierry de la Villehuchet, a French aristocrat who ran Access International, a New York firm that funneled money to Madoff. Markopolos already suspected Madoff was running a giant Ponzi scheme. As he and de la Villehuchet try to market an options-based trading product, Markopolos begins to understand the true dimension of Madoff's crime. On Dec. 23, 2008, less than two weeks after Madoff confessed to FBI agents, de la Villehuchet committed suicide.

We had 20 meetings in three countries in 10 days. It was a whirlwind tour of Europe. We met with various hedge funds and funds of funds. The meetings eventually ran together in my memory, but it seemed like each office or conference room was more luxurious than the previous one. The floors were covered with plush Persian carpets; the walls were done in rich walnut and cherry woods, and hung on many of them were oil paintings; we were served only with sterling silver, and the fixtures were gold. These rooms had been decorated to impress clients, to show them that money didn't matter—which they apparently believed was an effective means of convincing clients to give them their money.

We met with many of the leading investment banks and private banks of Europe. The system there is quite different than here, as wealthy investors use private banks to conduct their business. I went to a meeting with members of the L'Oréal family. At JPMorgan (JPM) I met with a member of the Givenchy family, who spent considerable time complaining about the Hermès family, who apparently were suing his family over an investment that had soured. At lunch one day with Prince Michel of Yugoslavia we sat at a table near Marc Rich, the disgraced financier whom Bill Clinton had so controversially pardoned. All these people knew each other. In Geneva, we were supposed to meet with Philippe Junot, the playboy who had been married to Princess Caroline of Monaco, but he canceled, I was told, because he thought my strategy was too risky, and he preferred to stay with Madoff.


Thierry began every one of our 20 meetings the same way: "Harry is just like Madoff. It's an option-based derivative strategy, only he offers a higher risk and a higher return. But it's different enough from Madoff that you should have him in your portfolio. If you have Madoff and you want some diversification, this will do it."

And every time he said it I got furious. What I wanted to shout out loud was that I was offering higher returns than Madoff because my returns were real and his were not. And I was a lot lower risk, because at most I was going to lose only 50% of their money while with Bernie they were going down a full load.

But I didn't. Instead I smiled and explained how this strategy worked. After that we would drill down to the details. I'd go through my pitch book. Then they would ask the usual range of questions: What are your risk controls? What are your trading rules? What is the frequency of the bad events that can hurt you?

It was the potential risk that scared them. I told them that way less than 1 percent of events could hurt the product, although admittedly should it happen it could be catastrophic. I was honest: "You could lose half your money very quickly."

The only fund that asked what I thought were the right questions about my due diligence was Société Générale. The people I met with there knew their derivative math. They told me, "We like your risk controls.

Harry Markopolos and his ad hoc team of sleuths spent eight years trying to expose Bernie Madoff as a fraud—but the SEC turned a deaf ear. His new book tells the sad tale

You're the only guy who's ever come in here and specified what we can lose. But that risk is too high for us." Ironically, we found out in January 2008 that they actually weren't such good risk managers, as an employee named Jérôme Kerviel defrauded them of more than $7 billion by executing a series of elaborate, off-the-books transactions that circumvented the bank's internal controls.

These meetings generally lasted about 90 minutes, and Thierry would end each one the same way: "When can I have your answer? When shall I call you to find out how much you'd like to invest?" It was never "if you want to invest," always "how much." He was a master salesman.

While the objective of this trip was to introduce my product to these fund managers, it also turned out to be an extremely educational trip for me. I came back with a lot more knowledge about Bernie Madoff than I had expected—and what I learned changed my life.

My team had absolutely no concept of how big Madoff was in Europe. We assumed several European funds and funds of funds had invested with him, but we never appreciated the number of funds or the size of their investments. It became clear to me during this trip for the first time that Madoff presented a clear and present danger to the American capital markets—and to the reputation of the Securities & Exchange Commission (SEC). While obviously I had lost confidence in the SEC, I also knew that investors around the world believed that it offered them a great level of protection and that their money was safe. That was one reason they invested here. When they discovered that wasn't true, that confidence in the integrity of the American markets that led people to invest in them was going to be badly shaken. When Madoff went down, and that was inevitable, the American financial system was going to take a worldwide beating to its reputation. A primary reason to invest in the United States would have disappeared.

Of the 20 meetings we had, the managers from 14 of those funds told me they believed in Bernie. Listening to them, I got the feeling it wasn't so much an investment as it was some sort of financial cult. What was almost frightening was the fact that every one of those 14 funds thought that they had a special relationship with him and theirs was the only fund from which he was continuing to take new money. At first I thought the only reason they would admit to me, someone they didn't know at all, that Madoff was managing their money was because they trusted Thierry, but then I began to understand that they were telling me this to impress me. The message was practically the same in every one of those 14 meetings: "We have a special relationship with Mr. Madoff. He's closed to new investors and he takes money only from us."
When I heard that said the first time I accepted it. When I heard it the second time I began to get suspicious. And when I heard it 14 times in less than two weeks, I knew it was a Ponzi scheme. I didn't say anything about the fact that I heard the same claim of exclusivity from several other funds. If I had, or if I had tried to warn anyone, they would have responded by dumping on me. Who was I to attack their god?


What I did wonder about was what was going on in Thierry's mind. He heard these 14 fund managers bragging, literally bragging about this special access, just like I did, and he knew it was a lie just like I did. But we never discussed it. Like Frank [Frank Casey, one of Markopolos' colleagues], I had previously tried to warn him. Before we'd left for Europe I'd told him, in these precise words, "You know Madoff is a fraud, don't you?"

And just as he had done when Frank told him, Thierry became extremely defensive. "Oh no, that's not possible," he'd replied. "He's one of the most respected financiers in the world. We check every trade ticket. We have them faxed. We put them in a journal. He's not a fraud."

I had considered asking to see those trade tickets, knowing I could use them to prove to Thierry I was right, but I didn't.

I was afraid that if I asked to see them he would think I was using them to reverse engineer Madoff, and I knew he wouldn't let me kill his golden goose.

I cared about Thierry and I wanted to save him. After it had become clear that Thierry wouldn't listen to me, I called Access's director of research, who was a bright guy and understood derivative math, and told him that I had compiled a substantial amount of evidence proving Madoff was a fraud. "I get into the office at 6:30 in the morning," I'd told him. "If you'll come over half an hour early before tomorrow's scheduled meeting, I can prove to you mathematically that Madoff is a fraud."

He never showed up. And then I got it. He didn't want to know. Thierry didn't want to know. They were committed to Madoff; without him they didn't exist. It was their access to Bernie Madoff that allowed Access International to prosper. So when Thierry heard each of these funds claim an exclusive relationship, there was nothing he could do about it. It changed nothing. I also felt absolutely no obligation to tell any of the 14 asset managers that Madoff was a fraud. I had no personal relationship with any of them, and I certainly didn't want Bernie Madoff to know we were tracking him. Like Access, these funds needed Bernie to survive; they didn't need me. Where would their loyalty be? And what would happen to me when Madoff found out I had warned them?

I did appreciate the fact that they were trapped. They had to have Madoff to compete. No one had a risk-return ratio like Bernie. If you didn't have him in your portfolio, your returns paled in comparison to those competitors who did. If you were a private banker and a client told you someone he knew had invested with Madoff and was getting 12% annually with ultralow volatility, what choice do you have? You're going to either get Madoff for that client or lose the client to a banker who has him. And Madoff not only made it easy; he made it lucrative. He allowed the feeder funds to earn higher fees than anyone else and always returned a profit.

That was the reason so many European funds gave their millions to him. It was after these meetings that I strongly suspected Madoff was even bigger in Europe than he was in the U.S. I estimated the minimum amount of money Bernie had taken out of Europe was $10 billion and in retrospect even that probably was low.

Once I realized how much money he had taken out of Europe—and was continuing to take—there was no longer any doubt in my mind that he wasn't front-running [that is, using his knowledge of transactions moving through his brokerage to trade ahead of them for his hedge fund clients]. This was a Ponzi scheme.


For a Ponzi scheme to continue to survive you have to bring in new money faster than it is flowing out, because you're robbing Peter to pay Paul. The more Pauls you have to pay, the more Peters you need to find. It's a ravenous monster that needs to be continuously fed. It never stops devouring cash.

But it became clear to me that the Europeans believed he was front-running—and they took great comfort in it. They thought it was phenomenal because it meant the returns were real and high and consistent and that they were the beneficiaries of it. They certainly didn't object to it; there was a real sense of entitlement on this level. To them, the fact that he had a seemingly successful broker-dealer arm was tremendously reassuring, because it gave him plenty of opportunity to steal from his brokerage clients and pass the returns on to them. They never bothered to look a little deeper to see if he was cheating other clients—like them, for example. What they didn't understand was that a great crook cheats everybody. They thought they were too respectable, too important to be cheated. Madoff was useful to them, so they used him.

They were attracted to Bernie like moths to a flame.

Just like the Americans, they knew. They knew. Several people admitted to me, "Well, of course we don't believe he is really using split-strike conversions. We think he has access to order flow."

It was said with a proverbial wink and a nod—we know what he's doing. And if the American Madoff got caught, well, c'est la vie. They believed that the worst that could happen was that he could get caught and go to prison for a long, long time; but they would get to keep their ill-gotten returns and would get their principals back because they were offshore investors and the U.S. courts have no legal hold on them.

But for me, the most chilling discovery of this trip was the fact that many of these funds were operating offshore. It was not something that was spoken about; it was just something I picked up in conversation. Offshore funds are known as tax havens, places for people to quietly hide money so governments won't know about it. They're particularly popular in nations with high tax brackets, like France. While offshore funds certainly can be legitimate, to me it indicated that at least some of these funds were handling dirty money.

An offshore fund allows investors from a high-tax jurisdiction to pretend their income is coming from a low- or no-tax jurisdiction. While I have no direct knowledge, I definitely don't believe that all income from offshore tax havens is eventually declared to the proper government. But what was more frightening to me was the fact that offshore investments are used by some very dangerous people to launder a lot of money. It is common knowledge that offshore funds are used by members of organized crime and the drug cartels that have billions of dollars and no legitimate place to invest them.

For me, that suddenly added a frightening new perspective. It wasn't just the people in these luxurious offices who were going to be destroyed when Madoff went down; it also was some of the worst people in the world. I was pretty certain the Russian mafia had to be investing through one of those funds. I didn't know about the Latin American drug cartels, but I knew they went offshore and were probably into Madoff in a big way. Obviously Bernie had to be worried about a lot more than going to jail. These were men who had their own way of dealing with people who zero out their accounts. Maybe Bernie was close to being a billionaire—we had no idea how much of the money he was keeping for himself—but we knew that even he couldn't afford that.