Bernard Madoff may go down as one of the biggest stock market fraudsters ever.
But even if the losses from the New York fund manager’s Ponzi scheme reach $50 billion—Madoff’s own estimate—he will remain a bit player in the ongoing market collapse.
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The capitalization of the world’s stock markets has declined by $26 trillion since July, according to the World Federation of Exchanges. To that destruction of value, Madoff’s $50 billion adds an almost trivial 0.2%. In the US, the legitimate loss from the peak is $8 trillion, so the Madoff fraud increases the American pain by a mere 0.6% greater.
But not all $50 billions are alike. For Lehman Brothers, which once had that much market capitalization, the sum supported a balance sheet many times larger. For Madoff, the effect of the loss will be magnified in a different way—by wounding the trust on which financial markets are built. Too many Madoffs and the whole financial would collapse.
Still, Madoff’s purported wicked ways haven’t garnered so much attention only because his practices could set an ominous precedent. There is something enthralling about the way confidence men—those rare criminals who simultaneously inspire and betray trust—can enthral both unwary and otherwise sage investors.
From the peak: The building where Bernard L Madoff Investment Securities Llc. offices are located in New York.Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
The psychological drama of con men has entranced many writers: Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, Thomas Mann and John le Carré. The authors, like the dupes, have often been seduced by the fraudsters’ almost magnificent ability to take advantage of human weakness.
In retrospect, Madoff looks anything but magnificent—more like a schemer, or perhaps a foolish man caught up in a fast-expanding web of lies. But for many years, he was able to charm many rich people who should have known better.
That ability and the calibre of the victims mean that Madoff’s bit part in the financial crisis could easily translate into a major motion picture. A clever director will give the audience the satisfaction of seeing the villain unmasked and punished. But the film is likely to linger on the years of dishonest glory. Deception is dangerous, but it comes with a certain glamour.