High Life | 7 February 2009

Marked men

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Last week I ventured down to Geneva for a meeting with my banker, a gentleman of the old school who did not get carried away by Bernie Madoff’s siren songs. To the contrary, he went as far as Odysseus, tied himself to his desk and plugged up the ears of his underlings. Metaphorically, that is. He had some interesting things to say. The mega-crook and fraudster never met suckers in person, except for those — mostly Jewish — friends of his in Palm Beach and in the Big Bagel. Europeans and Latin Americans were handled by his feeder fund managers, around 150 known ones, and, according to my banker, perhaps as many as 200 more unknown ones. That’s around 300 feeder funds working in secret to provide funds for a man whose name is already an adjective.

A feeder fund manager would approach a bank or a rich individual, announce how regretful it was that the Madoff fund was closed, but drop hints that, if an opening came up, the ‘mark’ could become a member of the ‘club’. The con was on, and sure enough the ‘mark’ would soon get another visit and hear the good news that finally they could join the club. In my banker’s case — his name shall remain a secret — he was told that, in view of the fact his bank is as prominent as it is, $500 million would be a minimum investment. My banker friend had contemplated investing perhaps 20 million for a look-see but, after the suggestion of 500 million big ones, told them thanks but no thanks. A wise and prudent man.

When the ‘mark’ or ‘marks’ would ask for details, the answer was automatic: ‘We cannot reveal anything of Bernie’s moves or investments because they might be leaked, and all of Wall Street will follow suit.’ Or words to that effect. It was a good con, and they all fell for it. The $500 billion question is, of course, did the feeders know it was a con, or had greed got in the way of common sense? I’d say in the case of Philippe Junot, Charles Fix and Thierry de la Villehuchet, it was definitely the latter. They had, after all, put most of their own money in it. The rest are as suspect to me as those who claimed in Nuremberg they knew nothing of war crimes. Mind you, the Banco Santander has done something about it. Their private clients, who lost 2.33 billion euros to Madoff’s con, will be repaid all their original investment. The bank is on to a winner. The payments will be in preferred Santander stock, thus tying up their clients for life, so to speak. The clients, needless to say, must agree not to sue the bank, thus freeing Santander from litigation that is bound to last for a generation. Santander is the first bank to offer compensation. I hear Kuwait is about to do the same but until now it is all talk. Union Bancaire Privée, owned and operated by the Picciotto clan, who invested $700 million with Uncle Bernie, has declined to comment whether compensation is on the cards. How can it be? Bodyguards cost money. I have been informed that Edgar Picciotto walks around Gstaad with two bodyguards and even had the gall to bring them to the Eagle club in case young Taki went after him. In a wild conspiracy theory, an executive of UBP actually rang me and told me that the reason the bank is not compensating investors is because — so the rumour goes — most of the funds are made up of Madoff’s own money.

Fooling all the people all of the time seems to be le plat du jour nowadays. The two most disgusting of our species, money-grubbers and politicians, were in Davos last week, and instead of a military swoop to herd them all together in a cage and drop them off somewhere in a crevasse — there are thousands in the Alps — we actually covered in print and electronic media what these jerks had to say. Incidentally, Rupert Murdoch’s hair colour has changed again, but for the better. Red does not go with the snow. It sticks out. These are the bums who invented subprime mortgages wrapped in complex bonds and derivatives, pumped them up with leverage of more than 30 to one, and then globalised them to the far corners of the earth. Death in a crevasse is slow but pleasant. After the original shock the cold sets in and one starts dreaming. I have no idea what the money-grubbers and the politicians would dream about, but I assure you it won’t be anything nice. Perhaps if an avalanche hits them while they’re down there it might add to their discomfort. But they’re so thick-skinned, they might even survive it.

Almost as thick-skinned as those Hollywood types who cast Tom Cruise as Claus von Stauffenberg. I saw the film and, although it could have been much worse, I thought it never got close to real portrayals of the brave Germans who tried to assassinate Hitler. But how could they? The only Germans they know about are those they show in bad movies as crude brutes bayoneting women. They’ve never met German aristocrats and certainly not Wehrmacht officers of the old school. Still, the uniforms were fine, but the British actors wearing them reminded me of neocons such as Kristol and Podhoretz posing as warriors. Ridiculous.