Jewish Journal


December 16, 2008

True confessions of a Bernard Madoff investor—er, former investor


There are some crazy rumors flying around concerning this Bernard Madoff mess. (There have also been more than a few anti-Semitic comments left on this blog.) One of those wild rumors was that a foundation belonging to Steven Spielberg had lost a $300 million investment. Not true.

The landscape of losses remains incredibly unclear. I spent all day on the phone with various Jewish communal leaders, compiling my own list of victims, but felt I only scratched the surface ... in Los Angeles. And remember, Madoff was better connected back east; the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, for exampled, reported losing $10 million.

My story should be online early Tuesday morning. In the meantime, here are the lamentations of one former Madoff investor:

The call came at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 11. I had been waiting for it for five years. When the call finally arrived, it was my wife Sarah who answered. What the person said on the other end of the phone was both simple and devastating: we were financially wiped out.

Of course, I knew this instantly from the look on my wife’s face. Her words to the caller, the person handling our financial matters, grew insistent: “You’re joking? This is a joke, right?”

We didn’t know it yet, but we had been playing in the Bernard Madoff Investment Securities LLC Fantasy Financial League.

I think everyone knew the call would come one day. We all hoped, but we knew deep down it was too good to be true, right? I mean, why wasn’t everyone in on this game if it was so strong and steady? We deluded ourselves into thinking we were all smarter than the others. When it came to the investment game, we had it figured. And what was the game anyway? The way it was vaguely described to us was that the “New York people” had a system whereby they placed a series of instant trades — at once with futures, currencies and stocks — and out of this magic recipe fell a tiny 1% guaranteed, no-risk profit for the group. You do that 20 times a year, take away management fees and, voilà, a steady 15% return. Man, these guys were good.

But of course the call did come, as it always does with such things. It was not an ordinary Ponzi scheme we were all part of; it was the biggest in the history of the world, valued at some $50 billion. Lucky us. Small investors, institutions, hedge funds, global banks, pension funds — all fell victim to usual suspects: a smooth huckster and greed.

You never want to hear the words that come with such a phone call. “We are all wiped out.” But they came, and we went numb. We lost, on paper, $1.2 million. My wife’s family’s combined losses are close to $30 million. We’re talking old ladies and men, lawyers, children with Madoff trusts, students in college and an array of others who thought they had the world beat — and they did, at least for a time.

Read the rest of Robert Chew’s tale here.

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