Monday 22 December 2008

Bernard Madoff and the Emperor's New Clothes

Cast your mind back nearly ten years to the dot com boom and recall the times when the financial geniuses in Wall Street, the City and VC funds were busy investing in 2nd or 3rd rate schemes that clearly had no chance of actually making in money.  Half of them will admit that they knew there was no chance of making any money, but no-one wanted to appear to missing out in a golden opportunity, with even Warren Buffet being criticised for not investing.

Compare those times to the classic childrens story, the Emperor's New Clothes where no-one wants to tell the king he is being swindled. Everyone could see he had no new clothes, but didn't appear to want to be foolish.

Contrast this with the Bernard Madoff affair and you realise that in this case, the whole financial community didn't even see he had no clothes on, they genuinely believed that his were made of gold.

While people such as Nicola Horlick bleat that its not their fault and its the fault that of the regulators for not being tough enough, consider the following

1. Returns Were Far Too Consistent
Year on year, the firm returned consistent returns of 12% whatever what was happening on the market. As Henry Porter described in his article in this Sundays Observer
Daniel diBartolomeo, a physicist and number cruncher from Boston was asked to look at Madoff's figures and compare them with those of a firm that was pursuing exactly the same strategy. 

No matter how much regression analysis he applied to Madoff's numbers, he could not reconcile the two performances. The analysis was passed to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which ignored, then forgot it, a measure of how lax things became under the Bush administration
At what point did alarm bells not start going off with fund managers that this seemed a little strange. I pay a 1% management fee on my unit trusts and pensions and I'd like to think that whoever is looking after my funds was doing some basic due diligence into things like this

2. You Only Got Paper Returns
RBS had over £400 millions invested, Nicola Horlicks fund had £33 million invested (10% of its fund) and apparently the fund didn't provide electronic statements, preferring paper.

This seems rather odd when virtually any high street bank lets you download electronic statements to analyse in Excel

Didn't the analysts at these funds think this was rather strange considering the amounts they had invested, or perhaps no-one wanted to say anything for fear of being called a fool

3. The Company Was Audited By A Three Man Team
Having worked with companies who have been bought out, I know stressful the due diligence process can be with people looking into every nook and cranny of a company.

Strangely this process appears to have been overlooked here with no-one thinking it strange that that a $5o billion fund or to lay it out in full, $50,000,000,000 fund was audited by a company whose three employees appeared to consist of , a secretary, another being a retired senior partner, and the third, a shadowy figure who dropped in a few evenings a week.

One hopes that this messy affair will give fund manager a good kickup their backsides and get them actively thinking about the pros and cons of the companies that they invest in rather than just following the crowd.

1 comment:

JT said...