So what’s it like to look into the face of evil? That’s the question everyone is asking Diana B. Henriques, a New York Times financial reporter and the author of a new book, The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust.
The book, released this week, is a true crime novel, a character study and a Wall Street cautionary tale rolled into one. Henriques enjoys the distinction of being the only journalist to have interviewed Bernie Madoff, the kingpin behind one of the largest and most destructive Ponzi schemes in U.S. history, twice in the flesh.
Madoff is currently serving a 150-year sentence for his misdeeds at the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina. Ever since he was remanded to custody in June of 2009, arm chair quarterbacking has become a favorite sport of media, financial experts and the general public alike. How did one man manage to swindle the SEC and the fabulously wealthy for nearly 20 years?
It turns out that for Madoff, finding believers was the easy part. Everyone wants to get in on something that’s exclusive and seemingly full of golden eggs.
“He’s not going to be the guy in the corner telling the funny story. He’s going to be the guy listening to the guy telling a funny story. He cultivated friends and admirers by listening to people and not competing with them. He made people feel like the most interesting person in the room…He was masterful in his ability to get people to trust him,” Henriques said.
That ability to get people to trust you, even when you’re selling them a bag of manure, is common to all scam artists. As I flipped through Henriques’ book, I was struck by how singularly the criminal mind works, whether they’re peddling bad investments or bad real estate. Gaining someone’s trust is the first step – taking their cash comes later, whether you’re talking about scam roofing contractors or scam money managers.
Henriques, with her unique access to one of the most hated men in America, a symbol of the type of greed and dishonesty that nearly brought America to its knees in 2008, felt compelled to write the book after what she characterizes as “first-hand experience in the dark side of the Madoff magic. He is completely untrustworthy.”
The billions of dollars lost by Madoff’s investors – that loss was more than just about money. “There were people who borrowed against home equity [to invest with Madoff]. Once they lost their savings they also lost their home. There were big time real estate investors, commercial investors, who relied on Madoff to augment their income,” she observed.
In speaking with Madoff, and later writing the book, Henriques “gained an understanding of how much people suffered. It says something very important to American investors about the necessity of taking personal responsibility for their investments.”
In a world where transactions have become as complicated as they are automated, it’s easy to overlook the continued importance of personal relationships in our financial dealings. This is a detail that Bernie Madoff clearly never forgot.
Of all the lessons the Madoff scandal taught us, Henriques believes the most important is increased awareness of “the danger of thinking someone else would take care of you. People didn’t really understand the market and put all their faith in this one man.”
With all of the attention the Madoff story received, and the subsequent revisions to the SEC code that were the natural outcome of the scandal, could a situation like this occur again?
As long as human nature is involved, there will always be risk. Henriques cautions, “Managing your personal finances is hard. If you don’t understand it, your safest avenue is to stay within the best regulated options in the market.”