Lessons from fallen financial idols

PHOTO: Lessons from fallen financial idols

As a financial writer who tries to help readers to understand the intricacies of the stock market, I have often turned to the folksy quotes of investment guru Warren Buffett to make my point.

But let's face it, most of us are not likely to have the patience to buy a stock and then hold it for decades like Mr Buffett. The likelihood is that if we make a decent profit on our investment, we will take the windfall and use the money to reinvest somewhere else.

So what other financial leading figures might we learn from?

This may sound rather perverse, but a few of them whose words are worth heeding are fallen idols in the financial world.

And it is precisely because they have fallen foul of the law in their relentless pursuit of material wealth that they make such captivating subjects to study.

For me, one compelling fallen angel is the late Marc Rich, the "king of commodities" credited with pioneering global spot oil trading markets in the late 1960s.

What I find abhorrent about him was his lack of ethics and failure to differentiate between right and wrong. But I sometimes wonder if these were the very traits which made him a successful trader.

I first came across his name when he was given a controversial pardon in 2001 by then US President Bill Clinton nearly two decades after he fled the United States on charges of fraud, racketeering and tax evasion. It was a decision Mr Clinton later regretted, calling it "terrible politics".

When Rich was once asked by a young trader for advice on trading, he purportedly picked up a knife, ran a finger across its edge and said: "As a trader, you often walk on the blade. Be careful and don't step off."

It offers a valuable insight on what makes a good trader - living the high life, but perpetually trying to balance risk with reward, fearful of falling off the cliff if he is not careful.

Few walked the so-called knife more skilfully than Rich. His life story read like a spy thriller, as he scanned the globe for looming crises to make money, skirting around political and moral obstacles, such as by selling Soviet oil to then apartheid South Africa despite a United Nations embargo.

But even he fell off the knife blade, as he ended up in 1983 on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's list of 10 most wanted people on charges that included exploiting a then US embargo against Iran - while it was holding US hostages - to make huge profits on illicit Iranian oil sales. Then there is the disgraced Wall Street financier Bernie Madoff, mastermind of the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, which cost investors at least US$18 billion (S$22.6 billion) in losses when the law finally caught up with him.

For the financially uninitiated, a Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation that pays its investors a return from their own money, rather than from profit made by the business.

I recently came across an interview which Madoff gave to a US financial portal, Marketwatch, five years after he was put behind bars for his crimes.

Some advice he offered to investors on how to avoid getting scammed boils down to common sense.

Madoff said: "Wall Street is not that complicated. If you ask an average hedge fund or investment firm how they make their money, they won't tell you. If you don't understand something, then don't invest in it."

Still, the ease with which he could get people to part with their money was amazing. He used credibility won by hobnobbing with the likes of former US Treasury secretary Bob Rubin and former Securities and Exchange Commission chairman Arthur Levitt.

He said: "My investors were sophisticated people, smart enough to know what was going on, and how money was made - but they still invested with me without any explanation."

And he noted that if an investment sounds too good to be true, it is. He had offered his clients a consistent 11 per cent to 12 per cent return year after year which made no sense, yet nobody questioned him about it and he was able to continue with his scam for a long time.

But if you believe that frauds perpetuated by the likes of Madoff are few and far between, you would be mistaken.

Just look at the recent gold scams in our own backyard which look like variations of the Ponzi scheme spawned by Madoff.

In one instance, a trading firm lured investors into buying gold at a premium and then offered them an attractive monthly payout for keeping the precious metal with the firm. Its owner, who capitalised on a spot of good publicity to perpetuate his scam, went missing after that.

For me, the best advice Madoff has to offer is to just keep your cash safe, even though you run the risk of its value getting eroded by inflation.

He said: "If you are not sure, you should put your money in a savings account. At least it is better than losing the money to fraud."

engyeow@sph.com.sg


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