By the end, the world itself was too small to support the vast Ponzi scheme constructed by Bernard L. Madoff.
Initially, he tapped local money pulled in from country clubs and charity dinners, where investors sought him out to casually plead with him to manage their savings so they could start reaping the steady, solid returns their envied friends were getting.
Then, he and his promoters set sights on Europe, again framing the investments as memberships in a select club. A Swiss hedge fund manager, Michel Dominicé, still remembers the pitch he got a few years ago from a salesman in Geneva. “He told me the fund was closed, that it was something I couldn’t buy,” Mr. Dominicé said. “But he told me he might have a way to get me in. It was weird.”
Mr. Madoff’s agents next cut a cash-gathering swath through the Persian Gulf, then Southeast Asia. Finally, they were hurtling with undignified speed toward China, with invitations to invest that were more desperate, less exclusive. One Beijing businessman who was approached said it seemed the Madoff funds were being pitched “to anyone who would listen.”
The juggernaut began to sputter this fall as investors, rattled by the financial crisis and reaching for cash, started taking money out faster than Mr. Madoff could bring fresh cash in the door. He was arrested on Dec. 11 at his Manhattan apartment and charged with securities fraud, turned in the night before by his sons after he told them his entire business was “a giant Ponzi scheme.”
The case is still viewed more with mystery than clarity, and Mr. Madoff’s version of events can only be drawn from statements attributed to him by federal prosecutors and regulators as he has not commented publicly on the case.
But whatever else Mr. Madoff’s game was, it was certainly this: The first worldwide Ponzi scheme — a fraud that lasted longer, reached wider and cut deeper than any similar scheme in history, entirely eclipsing the puny regional ambitions of Charles Ponzi, the Boston swindler who gave his name to the scheme nearly a century ago.
“Absolutely — there has been nothing like this, nothing that we could call truly global,” said Mitchell Zuckoff, the author of “Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend” and a professor at Boston University. These classic schemes typically prey on local trust, he added. “So this says what we increasingly know to be true about the world: The barriers have come down; money knows no borders, no limits.”
While many of the known victims of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities are prominent Jewish executives and organizations — Jeffrey Katzenberg, the Spitzers, Yeshiva University, the Elie Wiesel Foundation and charities set up by the publisher Mortimer B. Zuckerman and the Hollywood director Steven Spielberg — it now appears that anyone with money was a potential target. Indeed, at one point, the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, a large sovereign wealth fund in the Middle East, had entrusted some $400 million to Mr. Madoff’s firm.
Regulators say Mr. Madoff himself estimated that $50 billion in personal and institutional wealth from around the world was gone. It vanished from the estates of the North Shore of Long Island, from the beachfront suites of Palm Beach, from the exclusive enclaves of Europe. Before it evaporated, it helped finance Mr. Madoff’s coddled lifestyle, with a Manhattan apartment, a beachfront mansion in the Hamptons, a small villa overlooking Cap d’Antibes on the French Riviera, a Mayfair office in London and yachts in New York, Florida and the Mediterranean.
Just as the scheme transcended national borders, it left local regulators far behind. Its lies were translated into a half-dozen languages. Its larceny was denominated in a half-dozen currencies. Its warning signals were missed by enforcement agencies around the globe. And its victims are now scattered from Hollywood to Zurich to Abu Dhabi.
Indeed, while the most visible pain may be local — an important charity forced to close, an esteemed university embarrassed, a fabric of community trust shredded — the clearest lesson is universal: When money goes global, fraud does too.
“Is it possible that all these fund managers and investors were in the dark about what Madoff was doing?” Mark Lacter asked on his business blog “Not likely.”