Are two alleged fraud cases in New York the nails in the coffin for big money’s attempts to keep Government regulation at bay?

Fresh from the regulatory failures that allowed the sub-prime mortgage scandal to happen, which saw banking regulators allow US commercial and investment banks gear up their balance sheets and sell dodgy securities across the country and the world, what could be the biggest regulatory failure of all seems to be taking shape in New York.

The first is a case involving the well connected veteran New York broker and fund manager Bernie Madoff who allegedly confessed last week to a $US50 billion ($A76 billion) Ponzi scheme or fraud.

So how big is Bernie’s claimed fraud compared to other recent disasters? Well, its larger than the $US45 billion the US Treasury has injected into Citigroup to keep it alive, and in an Australian context, its around 7% (in Australian dollar terms) of our GDP and larger than our current account deficit.

Already investors with exposures close to $US20 billion have been identified around the world. More banks and funds are expected to own up, reluctantly, in coming days. Some of the richest families in Switzerland, Spain and in New York and Florida are said to be involved: many are completely broke or close to it.

Evidence is emerging that Madoff’s alleged multi-billion dollar fraud stretched from Tokyo to Europe to top US investors, all of them apparently unaware they were had been conned until the broker’s alleged confession and arrest last Thursday.

And the second is a smaller, but just as well connected attempted fraud which came to light in New York last week when one of the city’s high flying corporate lawyers was arrested in connected with an alleged fraud worth over $US300 million.

According to the New York Times:

Authorities say that Marc S. Dreier, one of New York’s most accomplished lawyers, brazenly swindled the city’s savviest investors, in a fraud estimated at $380 million.

Mr. Dreier has been charged with multiple frauds in the United States and a related crime in Canada, and is being held without bail in Manhattan.

In court last week, prosecutors said their count so far put the money missing at $US380 million, most of it lost by hedge funds and other investors who had bought promissory notes that were flat-out fictions.

In recent days, Dreier L.L.P., the Park Avenue law firm that Mr. Dreier founded, has been plunged into chaos. At least $35 million in escrow that was to have been held by the firm seems to be missing, the authorities say, and nearly all of its 250 lawyers are now looking for work.

The amounts pale next to the $US50 billion fraud that Bernard L Madoff, was accused last week of orchestrating. The Times says the reports have unnerved lawyers and their clients in the broader legal community around New York state and in Florida.

Some commentators have doubted the $US50 billion figure, but one hedge fund advisory firm alone, Fairfield Greenwich Group, said on Friday that its clients had invested $US7.5 billion with Mr Madoff.

Swiss bankers ate claimed to be facing losses of up to $US5 billion according to Geneva’s Le Temps newspaper. The report said Union Bancaire Privee, a major asset management institution specialising in hedge funds, could be exposed to the tune of $US1 billion. A number of other private banks had smaller amounts invested.

From the early detail that has emerged, there seems to have been an enormous failure of regulation: Bloomberg reported overnight that the US Securities and Exchange investigators hadn’t investigated Madoff’s investment advisory business since it became subject to official oversight in February 2006, despite a policy of checking on such groups in their first year of operation.

Madoff had several brushes with regulatory investigations a couple of times from 1992 onwards, but no problems were found in one case where he managed $US441 million of funds illegally raised by two Florida accounts in 1992 because it was found no money had been lost.

The Times said a SEC review of Madoff’s investment advisory business in 2005 found only three technical violations of trading rules. An inquiry in 2007 found nothing that prompted the regional enforcement staff to take further action by referring the matter to Washington.

Bloomberg reported that Madoff donated money to New York Democrat politicians and hobnobbed with the good and powerful of the country’s financial elite. Other reports said he invested family funds for a string of wealthy, well connected people on the US East Coast.

“According to an affidavit sworn out by federal agents, Mr Madoff himself said the fraud had totaled approximately $US50 billion, a figure that would dwarf any previous financial fraud.

“American socialites, investors from Britain and Europe, major sports franchise owners and charitable trust managers are trying to assess potential exposure and losses.

US and UK papers identified some of those invested with Madoff as including multi-millionaires such as Fred Wilpon, the principal owner of the New York Mets baseball team, Norman Braman, who once owned the Philadelphia Eagles American football club and controls a string of Florida car dealerships, and Ezra Merkin, the chairman of General Motors’ financing arm, GMAC.

Besides Santander, and BNP Paribas, Nomura and Lombard Odier and a range of private banks in Switzerland are involved with billions said to be at risk.

Mr Madoff is back in court in New York on Friday.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and protect yourself against news that goes viral.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW