Pyramid fraud puts US finance system in spotlight

December 16, 2008
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, LONDON, December 16 – Financial commentators let loose on the US financial system Tuesday as more firms announced losses in the suspected multi-billion-dollar swindle run by ex-Wall Street heavyweight Bernard Madoff.

Four Japanese financial firms joined the growing list of those caught up in the scandal that already includes some of the world\’s largest banks.

Aozora Bank said its exposure might amount to 12.4 billion yen (137 million dollars, 101,000 million euros).

Several Japanese insurers, including Nipponkoa Insurance Co. and Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance Co., also said they might have lost money, while Daiwa Securities Group said was caught up in the alleged scam.

The latter three firms stressed, however, that their losses were expected to be at most several hundred million yen — relatively small sums compared to the sums announced by some major banks on Monday.

Spain\’s biggest bank Santander announced exposure of more than three billion dollars to Madoff Investment Securities in New York, sending its shares plunging.

"The supposed meticulous supervision by the SEC has failed in the task of preventing massive fraud," Spanish newspaper El Pais said Tuesday.

"It must asked how it is possible that no one had detected anything abnormal about his (Madoff\’s) activities," said the newspaper La Vanguardia.

"Neither the assessment agencies nor the auditors nor the stock market authorities were capable of noticing that the high profits that were being offered were based on a pure pyramid system."

Madoff was arrested Thursday and allegedly confessed to defrauding investors of 50 billion dollars in a scam that collapsed after clients asked for their money back due to the global financial crisis.

Global finance giants have admitted huge potential losses in the suspected pyramid fraud scam run by the 70-year-old Wall Street veteran.

US authorities allege that Madoff delivered consistently strong returns to clients by secretly using the principal investment from new investors for payments to other investors.

US Vice President Dick Cheney said in a radio interview Monday that the alleged scam by the former Nasdaq chairman was "very disturbing" and blamed a few "bad apples."

But Dominique Strauss-Kahn, director general of the International Monetary Fund, expressed shock Monday that US regulators failed to spot the red flags.

British investment fund Bramdean Alternatives Limited, which revealed it had invested about 31.2 million dollars in Madoff\’s company, also said the scandal raised "fundamental questions" about the US financial regulatory system.

Other big losers included Britain\’s HSBC, the world\’s third-biggest bank by market capitalisation, and the Dutch Bank Fortis. Both said they had exposure of about 1.0 billion dollars.

A string of other European banks have announced investments in the tens and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars with Madoff.

Prosecutors say Madoff hid his illegal business on a separate floor of the Manhattan building housing his company\’s booming brokerage arm.

The accounts for the multi-billion dollar enterprise were handled at a tiny, obscure accountancy firm in New City, New York state.

The Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC), which provides a Congress-authorized special reserve fund to help investors at failed brokerage firms, said Monday it was liquidating the Madoff company.

"It is clear that the customers of the Madoff firm need the protections available under federal law," said a statement from Stephen Harbeck, SIPC president and CEO.

Madoff\’s greatest asset appears to have been his insider credentials.

He was a prominent member of the securities industry throughout a career stretching back to 1960, serving as vice chairman of the National Association of Securities Dealers (NASD) and sitting on the board of governors.

He was also a member of NASDAQ Stock Market\’s board of governors, its executive committee and served as chairman of its trading committee, according to a statement from the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).

Madoff reportedly played golf at exclusive clubs like Old Oaks outside New York and Palm Beach Country Club in Florida, owned three homes and a yacht in the Bahamas.

But he also had a reputation as a philanthropist, donating generously to Jewish and pro-Israeli charities.

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