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The Madoff Disgrace

How could the Madoff disgrace not have produced a suicide? It came in the Wednesday morning news: a French banker working and living in New York had taken his own life, turned wretched by having invested $1.4 billion of his clients' funds over to the biggest financial fraud in history.

You would have thought -or, at least, I thought- that the first suicide would be Bernard Madoff himself. Alas, not. He has neither a sense of grace nor a sense of justice. Anyway, although he has been taking walks near his East 64th Street Manhattan apartment, he will not be able to face the world.  And, apparently, he will not leave it.

A second man I thought might be tempted by a shortcut to the after-life is J. Ezra Merkin, although he himself seems also to have been hurt by putting some of his own money in the funds (Ascot Partners LP and Gabriel Partners LP) slipped to Madoff. One problem with Merkin is that he worked a street he purported to love, the Jewish street (not alone in this particular ethnocentric moral squalor; there were others in Boston, Palm Beach and Minneapolis) to get friends, foundations and operating charitable institutions to invest.  Ah, with whom?  With himself.  But he hid from his investors the fact that Madoff was the golden goose.  This did not keep him from taking circa 1 1/2 percent annually as a management fee for money he did not manage. 

Like Madoff himself, Merkin supped off charities in which he was active and to which, presumably, he gave money: the Fifth Avenue Synagogue (of which he was president), Yeshiva University, the Ramaz School, all by the way modern Orthodox in character.  There were many Israeli institutions that lost fortunes, some of them with Merkin, some with Madoff himself.  The Technion (Israel's M.I.T. or C.I.T.), for example. And American philanthropies working in Israel: Hadassah, the American women's Zionist organization, that underwrites the Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. Then there were family foundations and individuals and charitable trusts, from small accounts to enormous ones.  Some of them have already closed up shop.

When I saw Merkin's name on the list of culprits/victims (in the beginning they were intermingled), I have to confess feeling a small smile come to my face.  Not that I expected any of this.  But when it came, I wasn't exactly surprised.  There was something in his carriage that was haughty and a little bit derisive.  Maybe it was that the rest of us hadn't figured out how the world really works.

Merkin comes from real Jewish aristocracy. It's not his wealth that I mean: he's not a Rothschild or a Sassoon, a Schiff or a Kedourie. But he does come from people of real learning. His great-great grandfather was Samson Raphael Hirsch and his grandfather was Isaac Breuer, perhaps the two most significant figures in the development of modern Jewish orthodoxy, institutionally in Germany and philosophically around the world.  (If any of this intrigues you, there are ways to read about the two on-line. Google the Encyclopedia Judaica, and go on from there.)  This is a fall from the financial gutter.

There's been a lot of talk among Jews about Madoff. Leon Wieseltier called Madoff a kloleh, a curse. He certainly is a curse. And he is now, much too late, a pariah. And his investors, certainly, his long-time investors, were fools. It was too good to be true.

There were, of course, some warnings going back more than a decade to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Characteristically, it did nothing.  It is now embarrassed, and its behavior and future will certainly be examined by the Obama administration. Too late. Obama's designation of Mary Schapiro as the commission chairman is, however, a good beginning.

Kingsgate Global, another feeder institution, is a London fund that turned over $2.75 billion of its investors' money to Madoff. According to Tuesday's Financial Times, Kingsgate's documents warned explicitly that Madoff "could abscond with those assets...Information supplied by the investment adviser may be inaccurate or even fraudulent. The co-managers are entitled to rely on such information (provided they do so in good faith) and are not required to undertake any due diligence to confirm the accuracy thereof." Kingsgate Global's investors will be unable to claim that they weren't warned. They were warned precisely about what might happen, and they chose to take the risk. Stupid. 

I have now seen an April statement from Madoff enumerating the trades in a charitable account that was said to have $13 million in it. There was $82 million worth of trading activity during that month. A pig's ass, there was.

To be sure, this fraud was perpetrated over gentile fools as well. I would guess with more money lost. Here are some of Madoff's other clients: Union Bank of Switzerland, Royal Bank of Scotland, Allianz Global, Banco Espanol de Credito, Banco Popular, Santander, Barclays, BNP Paribas, Normura Securities, Swiss Life Holding, Credit Agricole, Neue Privat, Bank Medici and on and on...and on.