Hedge Fund Maven Madoff Falls Hard

You probably have to go back to the Enron scandal to find someone who has fallen as fast and as far as Bernie Madoff.

Until this week he was one of the lions of Wall Street, someone who managed one of the most successful hedge funds around.

But on Thursday, FBI agents swept into his apartment in New York and arrested him. They say his hedge fund was little more than a Ponzi scheme and that he appears to have lost tens of billions of dollars of his investors' money.

People who put their money into hedge funds often do so because of the personalities behind them.

George Soros, Steven Cohen and Julian Robertson are seen as superstars of money management — people who prosper even when the market is down — and investors tend to run after them like groupies.

Madoff, 70, was very much in the pantheon. Sandy Gross runs an executive search firm called Pinetum Partners, and Madoff was one of her early clients.

"People always held him in the highest regard," Gross recalled. "People would always say he only knew how to make money. 'That Bernie Madoff, he has done a great job — he makes money and he's a great guy.' "

His reputation stemmed in large part from his long tenure on Wall Street. He operated a trading firm that bore his name. He had been chairman of the Nasdaq stock market, and reporters frequently went to him for his expertise on the markets.

Last year he spoke in a panel discussion in New York about the future of Wall Street. He told the audience that firms like his are very well-regulated by the federal government.

"In today's regulatory environment, it's virtually impossible to violate rules," he noted. "This is something the public really doesn't understand. If you read something in the newspaper and you see somebody violated a rule, you think, 'Well, they're always doing this,' but it's impossible for a violation to go undetected."

As it turned out, Madoff was right.

What brought him down was a hedge fund that he ran separately from his trading firm. Madoff was said to exert almost total control over the fund, and it was famous for providing unusually high returns.

Barron's once questioned how Madoff could do so well even in bad times. Madoff declined to answer. The information was proprietary, he said.

Thursday, authorities asserted that Madoff's fund was a big Ponzi scheme, which took money from new investors to pay fat returns to old ones.

Madoff's sons worked at the firm, and The Wall Street Journal reported that they were the ones who turned him in.

According to the criminal complaint, Madoff acknowledged Thursday that the fund was "a big lie."

Former federal prosecutor Dan Richman says the comments will make prosecuting the case easier.

"His own comments are spectacularly damning," Richman says. "In the classic white-collar prosecution, you have the paper trail, and the only question is what the defendant intended. Here, the defendant's intention is clear in a way one rarely sees."

Meanwhile, investors are left to sift through the fund's wreckage, trying to determine how much is left.

The fund's investors are likely to include a lot of rich individuals. But Wall Street veteran Dan Strachman, whose books include The Long and Short of Hedge Funds, says a lot of big institutional investors probably invested in it, too.

"Six months ago everybody wanted to be in Bernie Madoff's products," Strachman said. "Today, those who weren't able to get in are wiping the sweat off their brow saying, 'Thank goodness this happened.' "

Those who did invest in the fund are expected to lose all or most of their money. What they will have left will be lots of questions about how Madoff was able to fool so many people for so long — and why regulators didn't stop him until it was far too late.

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