Bernie Madoff is back in the news lately as it’s now been 5 years since he was arrested for the largest Ponzi Scheme. For some reason, the name is commonly linked to “hedge funds”. Yet, the Bernie Madoff scam wasn’t a hedge fund, his company was a registered and regulated brokerage firm called Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities. Madoff founded the Wall Street brokerage firm Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities LLC in 1960. Some large hedge funds lost money because they had invested in Madoff’s managed account. They had Madoff managing some of their funds money. But Madoff Investment Securities LLC wasn’t a hedge fund.
If you had an account managed by Bernie Madoff at Madoff Investment Securities LLC you would have had an account owned and titled in your own name. You would have gotten trade confirmations from Madoff Investment Securities LLC when he bought or sold. You don’t get that in a fund. You don’t know when a fund buys or sells. His investment program, then, offered the appearance of transparency – you could see what he was doing at any time.
As it turned out, the appearance of transparency enabled the thief to defrauded customers of approximately $20 billion over several decades. You see, Madoff’s investment program was a fraud, and the reason he was able to do it is that:
1. He was the portfolio manager: he made the trading decisions.
2. He owned the broker that executed the trades (as it turned out, they were fake; he didn’t do trades).
3. He owned the custodian: the custodian and broker was the same company.
Since Madoff Investment Securities LLC was the portfolio manager, broker, and the custodian, that allowed him to pretend to do trades and print trade confirmations and statements with fake information on them. Madoff Investment Securities LLC was regulated and registered as a brokerage firm, just like Wells Fargo Advisors, Edward Jones, Schwab, Morgan Stanley, and other brokers. You can probably see how the real issue was that his program was a fraud and he was able to do it because he controlled the trading decisions, trade confirms, account statements, and custody, because his company did it all. What if he had been required to custody an another company independent of his? he would have had to convince the other company to participate in his scheme which would likely have gotten him busted sooner. Most investment companies aren’t a fraud, so they would likely report him. Madoff was large and respected – but don’t think that made it any safer.
Whether you invest in a separately managed account or a private investment partnership, require that they use multiple service providers that are independent of each other instead of all one company. For example, your portfolio manager is an asset management firm, the broker is a different company that executes the trades and the custodian is a separate company that holds the securities and handles the cash in and out. Then, require it be audited by even another independent company. For example, if you enter into an investment management agreement with ABC Capital Management, LLC that firm is the portfolio manager and the agreement gives it authority to buy and sell in your account. Your account should then be held at a financial institution registered as a broker or bank like Folio Institutional, Trust Company of America, or JP Morgan. You deposit money to that financial institution that holds your money and they send you statements. ABC Capital Management, LLC is just trading the account independently and shouldn’t have custody of the money. If the investment program is a “hedge fund” instead of a separately managed account then it’s typically structured as a private investment partnership, say: ABC Fund, LP. A private fund is operated like a business – the business is trading for profit. You review a Private Placement Memorandum that explains every detail of ABC Fund, LP. When you invest, you sign a “Subscription Agreement” instead of an investment management agreement. You wire the deposit to the bank account of ABC Fund, LP and that money is then wired to the funds brokerage account. It’s best to require the fund to have a “third party administrator” who acts as the funds controller and accountant. That third party administrator is who accounts for your investment and sends you statements showing the value of your investment. You can probably see why you want the administrator to be a third party – independent from the fund manager. Then, the fund is audited annually to verify the administrators accounting is accurate. When ABC Fund, LP is a private investment partnership, it should be operated like any other major business with multiple investors. It has a bank account that sends/receives wires, a custodian that holds securities, a broker that executes trades, a third party administrator that does the accounting and creates profit and loss statements, and an independent accountant that audits all of it. Those should be separate companies independent of each other, not one.
Unfortunately, most of the smaller scams we hear about are even worse than the Madoff scheme. The investors write a check to “John A. Doe” which isn’t even a company at all. I don’t think any legitimate investment program has you writing a check to the individual portfolio manager. Deposits should be made to an independent bank or custodian and statements should come from that custodian. In fact, it’s even better to wire the funds rather than write a check. But “You can’t fix stupid”. There will always be Madoff-like scams and people stupid enough to write them a check. If you simply require that all the service providers be separate companies you won’t be one of them.