Blog post #481
Bernie Madoff, who ran one of the largest Ponzi schemes ever, died this week in jail at age 82. He defrauded investors of almost $65 billion in paper losses, which came to light in 2008 during the Great Financial Crisis.
There are lessons to be learned from the Madoff incident, as well as how the regulatory system which governs investment advisory firms like ours changed for the better.
Madoff bilked many wealthy families, in NY and Florida particularly, as well as charities, institutions and endowment funds in the US and globally. They were lured by his years of positive returns and reputation as a leader on Wall Street.
The key lesson is that Madoff “reported” years and years of only positive returns to his clients. They became more confident of his firm and referred others. Madoff never reported down periods once his Ponzi scheme got going in the 1990s. That is not realistic.
We often talk about when you invest in stocks there will be frequent time periods that your investments will go down. We all know that, but these very wealthy individuals and institutions kept believing that Madoff was so good that he never lost money.
Our advice to you is that if returns are too good, or seem consistently too good, you should look at that investment concept/manager/advisor very carefully and with lots of skepticism. No one can invest in the stock market and always generate positive returns. No investment only goes up and never goes down (that we know of). This is advice that you should always remember and discuss with your family, especially your kids or grandchildren, as they learn about investing.
After the Madoff scandal, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which governs our industry, encouraged Registered Investment Advisers (RIAs) to place their clients’ assets in the custody of an independent firm (like Fidelity or Schwab), unlike Madoff did. This is what is referred to as the custody rule. WWM does not have custody of your assets. When you open an account with our firm or make a future deposit, you write a check payable to the custodian (or wire funds directly to the custodian). You will never write a check to WWM. The funds are paid directly to the custodian, such as Fidelity Investments or Schwab. Madoff did not use an independent custodian like Fidelity, which is how he was able to pull off the Ponzi scheme.
When you want a disbursement of your assets, the custodian will never write a check to WWM. The funds are only disbursed to the account holders, their bank account or if you want a check sent to another party, multiple forms are required for security purposes. When you open an account, want to link your bank account to your custodian or get check writing privileges, there is always lots of paperwork. All these steps, documents and requirements are to prevent a Madoff-like scenario from occurring again.
For nearly all of our client relationships, WWM is considered to not have custody over these assets. The assets are held at an independent custodian (Fidelity or Schwab) and WWM has no control or withdrawal privileges over these accounts.
There are situations where RIAs such as WWM can have “custody” rights for certain clients, at the client’s request. For example, WWM (or the firm principals) have been named as Trustee for several client accounts, at their request or in their estate planning documents. In these situations, we still use an independent custodian, but we are considered to have custody, or control of client assets. Because of the SEC custody rules, we must annually disclose these accounts to the SEC. WWM is then subject to an annual surprise exam by an independent CPA firm, to protect the investors’ assets and verify that those assets actually exist. This surprise examination provides another set of eyes on the clients’ assets, thereby offering additional protection against the theft or misuse of funds.
We take our responsibility to invest and safeguard your assets very seriously. We want you to know that we are diligent about adhering to our regulatory obligations. We know that Fidelity and Schwab work hard to maintain their custodial relationships with you very carefully.
We hope that a Madoff-like scandal never occurs again, but we know there will be other fraudulent incidents in the future. There are constant cyber-security threats ongoing all the time. We must all be careful and diligent.
We work hard to build our trust with you. And we plan to keep that trust.
Talk to us. We want to listen. We want to assist you, your family members and friends.