Prof. Jayanth R. Varma’s Financial Markets Blog

A blog on financial markets and their regulation

Law, Madoff, fairness and interest rates

I would grant that there is probably no fair way for the courts to
deal with the mess created by the Madoff fraud. But I am intrigued by
the discussions about fairness in the ruling
of the US Bankruptcy Court about the rights of the Madoff victims.

I have nothing to say about the part of the judgement which
interprets the law, and will confine myself to the fairness example
that the judge discusses (page 32):

Investor 1 invested $10 million many years ago, withdrew $15
million in the final year of the collapse of Madoff’s Ponzi
scheme, and his fictitious last account statement reflects a balance
of $20 million. Investor 2 invested $15 million in the final year of
the collapse of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, in essence funding
Investor 1’s withdrawal, and his fictitious last account
statement reflects a $15 million deposit. Consider that the Trustee
is able to recover $10 million in customer funds and that the Madoff
scheme drew in 50 investors, whose fictitious last account statements
reflected “balances” totaling $100 million but whose net
investments totaled only $50 million.

The judge believes that Investor 1 has no net investment
“because he already withdrew more than he deposited” while
Investor 2 has a $15 million net investment. Since the recovery of
$10 million is 20% of the $50 million net investment of all investors
put together, Investor 2 is entitled to $3 million and Investor 1 is
entitled to nothing.

The court states that Madoff apparently started his Ponzi scheme
(“investment advisory services”) in the 1960s. Since the
fraud was exposed at the end of 2008, the Ponzi scheme went on for
maybe 40 years. Let us therefore take “many years ago” in
the judge’s example to mean 20 years ago.

Between 1988 and 2008, the 3 month US Treasury Bill yield averaged
a little over 4% so that the present value of Investor 1’s $10
million at the risk free interest rate would be about $22
million. After the withdrawal of $15 million, there would still be $7
million left – a little less than half of Investor 2’s $15
million. If you believe in the time value of money, Investor 1 should
get a little less than half of Investor 2. The judge thinks Investor 1
should get nothing.

Alternatively, if you believe that the purchasing power of money is
important, then the US consumer price inflation during those 20 years
averaged about 3%. The $10 million that Investor 1 put in two decades
ago would be worth $18 million in 2008 dollars and Investor 1 would
still have $3 million of net investment left after the withdrawal of
$15 million. Yet the judge thinks he should get nothing.


4 responses to “Law, Madoff, fairness and interest rates

  1. Alex Dalmady March 15, 2010 at 2:07 am

    In the Stanford case, the receiver aims to go one step further and is requiring that investors return any net gains.

    In your hypothetical case, Investor 1 would be required to return his $5 million net “gain”, regardless of how long it was invested.


  2. Wish March 15, 2010 at 2:37 am

    LOL. That’s a truely valid claim. Unfortunately , judges and regulators(leave aside politicians) hardly studied economics or basic mathematics and that’s the problem.

  3. facts April 18, 2010 at 8:32 am

    Another problem is white collar crime is always viewed as somehow less serious than regular offenses.

    It’s so much worse when the accused has a decent position on a social level.

    Most of the time, just a slap on the wrist is all you get.

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