Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Madoff Ponzi Scheme: The Perils of Cults of Personality

There aren't many people left for alleged mega-swindler Bernard Madoff to alienate - even his sons seem to want to let him rot in jail....Desperate "Super-Thief" Son-Berned, NY Post, 12/17/08

In the late 1960s, there was an investment theory developed around the idea that a particular executive, moving from one company to another, was a sure sign that his or her former company's stock would go down and his or her new company's stock would go up. It was called, after Chairman Mao, "a cult of personality." As investment theories go, it failed, as do most actions based on romantic interpretations of the evidence. This is endemic in New York even today. Cults of personality develop around certain heads of private schools, certain doctors, certain lawyers. Dig underneath the surface of such a proclamation about someone's perfection in a profession, however, as in statistical analysis of outcomes of education, treatments, lawsuits, and the basis for the positive assessment falls apart. Still, one still hears "I'd only go to Dr. J...; he's the only oncologist in New York."

In Palm Beach, one suspects that five, ten years ago, a common cocktail party sentiment was "Bernard Madoff is the only worthwhile investment manager in New York." Perhaps they can put the sentence on the tents they'll be living in after prosecutors, attorneys, and the police finish recouping all the loot they thought Bernie Madoff had earned.

In investment, as in politics, it's terribly old-fashioned, but also still terribly true: if you don't look at a person's record, you're just as dumb a mark as someone expecting to win at 3-card monte on 42nd Street.


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