Advisers should pay up Madoff’s victims

Advisers should pay up Madoff’s victims

What were funds of funds doing backing Bernard Madoff’s alleged $50 billion Ponzi scheme? Didn’t they do due diligence? Didn’t they spot the red flags that might have suggested that something was fishy? These are the questions investors who may have seen their money wiped out will be asking. And the madder they get, the more they are likely to try to get even.

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The deepest of these pockets appear to be outside the US. First, there’s Spanish bank Banco Santander SA. Optimal, its fund of funds operation, had $3.1 billion (about Rs15,100 crore) of money invested with Madoff. Given that it only had €6 billion (Rs38820 crore) in funds under management at the end of last year, that’s quite a lot of eggs in one basket.

Then there’s UniCredit SpA, the Italian banking group. Pioneer Investments, its Dublin-based fund manager, has indirect exposure to Ponzi scheme through “feeder funds" that channelled money into Madoff. Pioneer isn’t saying how big its exposure was—but the Financial Times says that two of its funds had “substantially all" of their $835 million invested in Madoff.

A large number of Swiss private banks were also exposed. The total exposure of Geneva-based banks alone is more than $4 billion, according to Le Temps. Then there’s BNP Paribas SA, the French bank, which has exposure, according to The Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, Man Group, the London-based fund manager, had roughly $350 million lodged with Madoff via its RMF operation. The alleged fraud has also affected Nomura. The Japanese broker marketed a feeder fund to its clients.

The massive alleged fraud is hugely embarrassing to all these substantial institutions. At the very least, it will undermine their reputations as savvy investment advisers. More likely, investors will demand compensation. How will these substantial institutions then react?

One option will be to say no. But they could then face a slew of lawsuits for alleged negligence. Lawyers are already chumming the waters in search of aggrieved Madoff clients. Investors in other funds managed by these Madoff feeders who have not been affected might also lose confidence and take their money away—damaging their entire fund management franchises.

Another alternative will be to pay up. That’s what Santander did earlier this year after it had put some of its private bank customers into Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.’s investment vehicles. Voluntary compensation can be costly—especially for banks whose capital bases are being hammered from all sides. But, in the long run, it may be less expensive than toughing it out.