By Diana B. Henriques, Henry Holt & Co., New York, N.Y. 419 pages, $30
Why is it so much more fun to read about evil than about good? “The Wizard of Lies” poses that old question anew. The reader will have to work out his or her own answer. It is hereby promised that the process will be a rewarding one.
Diane Henriques, a senior financial writer for The New York Times and a published author, has analyzed and recounted the glorious rise and inglorious fall of Bernard L. Madoff. He created and masterminded a Ponzi scheme that Henriques convincingly calls “the largest and most far-flung fraud in financial history.”
While she is at it, the author brings out a remarkable feature of the case. Mr. Madoff, once his fraudulent empire had collapsed, made no public effort to deny, mitigate or justify his wrongdoing. He seemed eager to get it all off his chest. Even before the authorities had accumulated any real evidence against him, he incriminated himself. In December 2008, he answered, “There is no innocent explanation” to questions by FBI agents about second-hand reports they had received of falsified securities transactions. They arrested him on the spot.
In pleading guilty, Mr. Madoff apologized at length to his victims, to his family and to society at large. He said that he felt “deeply sorry and ashamed.” He did likewise at his sentencing in June 2009. He said to Southern District Judge Denny Chin, “I cannot offer you any excuse for my behavior.” The judge imposed the maximum penalty, 150 years.
In meticulous but never tiresome detail, the author tells how Mr. Madoff started out as a stockbroker in 1960. He succeeded and launched a second career as an investment advisor and money manager. Again he succeeded.
Then, at a date in dispute he began, in the author’s words, “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” In a bankruptcy proceeding in 2009, his customers’ accounts showed an aggregate balance of $64.8 billion. A good part of this total, of course, represented money and securities that existed only on paper.
Mr. Madoff’s “expanding web of lies” financed a standard of living whose lavishness and extravagance test one’s power to grasp. The Madoffs enjoyed an East Side penthouse, a beachfront “cottage” in Montauk, a $3.8 million mansion in Palm Beach, a town house on the Riviera, a $7 million, 88-foot yacht moored in a $1.5 million slip, a custom-built jet and more. All of it came to be seized and offered for sale by a bankruptcy trustee in an effort to satisfy the claims, eventually totaling over 16,000, of Mr. Madoff’s defrauded victims.
How one man could pull it all off and get away with it for so long provides the central theme of this engaging book.
In time, Mr. Madoff won a reputation first as a brilliant trader, then as a trustworthy advisor and custodian of other people’s wealth. The author emphasizes her subject’s straightforward, reassuring demeanor, his “masterful fluency in both truth and lies.” He seemed, she writes, “to create a quiet but intense magnetic field that drew people to him.”
Returns “too consistently good to be credible” naturally provoked questions. Yet time and again Mr. Madoff lied his way out of trouble with calmness and seeming candor. The word of “a senior statesman on Wall Street” was accepted too often without question.
By no means did the roster of Mr. Madoff’s victims consist only of millionaires. Much of his income came from “feeder funds.” They accepted investments from individuals, many of limited means, and reinvested the pooled proceeds with Mr. Madoff.
His downfall thus brought about thousands of heartrending tragedies. Small-time investors, many of advanced age, saw their life savings, their pensions or their children’s college funds evaporate. Since they were not themselves Mr. Madoff’s customers, these individuals were held not entitled to share in the proceeds of the liquidation of his enterprise.
Its very nature dooms a Ponzi scheme to exposure and destruction. In Mr. Madoff’s case it was redemptions that did him in. To sustain the confidence on which its survival depends, such a scheme must let participants withdraw their funds at will.
The banking crisis of 2008 led more and more nervous investors to take money out of Mr. Madoff’s till. By Thanksgiving of that year, he realized that pending redemptions demanded more cash than he had or could get. He soon confessed, in tears, to his wife and two sons. The sons, on advice of counsel, went straight to the FBI.
Today, at age 71, Bernie Madoff dwells where he belongs, in a federal prison. His sentence makes it certain that he will stay locked up for life. They have, as the saying goes, thrown away the key.
Wickedness and gullibility, however, remain components of human nature. Misplaced trust, the book’s subtitle to the contrary notwithstanding, has not died. Financial schemers will continue to find victims ready, willing and able to be fleeced. “The next Bernie Madoff expects to get away with it, too,” writes the author in her philosophical epilogue.
Few, if any, future defrauders, however, will have their dirty work chronicled so thoroughly and so understandably as has Mr. Madoff.
Diana Henriques has not just provided entertaining, instructive reading. She has performed a real service by issuing an eloquent warning that easy money should be looked at not with trust but with suspicion and investigation.
Walter Barthold is retired from the practice of law in New York City.