We all know this story – how Mr Madoff misplaced 50 billion dollars and deceived the likes of Nicola Horlick and other grown up investors the world over. It made me read about Charles Ponzi, the inventor of the eponymous Ponzi scheme. Does anybody out there notice a looky-likey resemblance? The story best encapsulating these links between the two ran in the New York Times yesterday.
The $50 billion fraud that federal authorities say Bernard L. Madoff perpetuated has already been called the largest Ponzi scheme in history (though Dealbook reports there seem to be other contenders for that distinction).
On the surface, at least, it would seem that Mr. Ponzi and Mr. Madoff could hardly be more different. Mr. Madoff, 70, was a fixture in the high-flying worlds of finance and philanthropy, with a reputation that extended from Manhattan’s moneyed elite to the exclusive golf clubs of Palm Beach, Fla. Mr. Ponzi, who died in 1949, was a fast-talking immigrant and college dropout, whose scheme — according to Mitchell Zuckoff, Mr. Ponzi’s biographer — rested on the eagerness of ordinary working people to benefit from the wealth they saw being generated around them during the last Gilded Age.
“He had his nose pressed against the glass,” Mr. Zuckoff, a professor of journalism at Boston University and a former reporter for The Boston Globe, said in a phone interview on Monday. “He was not linked with Wall Street and New York, though he had dreams of being like Rockefeller.”
Mr. Zuckoff’s book “Ponzi’s Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend,” published by Random House in 2005, traces how Mr. Ponzi duped tens of thousands of people out of millions of dollars in a short-lived craze that became the defining confidence scheme of its time. It was brief, lasting only from December 1919 to August 1920.
Born in northern Italy, Mr. Ponzi emigrated to Boston in 1903, at age 21. Soon he had learned English, held jobs as a waiter and bank teller and served time for forgery and smuggling (or what might be called human trafficking today, since it involved illegal immigrants from Italy).
Essentially, the scheme he devised involved buying postal reply coupons in European currencies at fixed, outdated rates of exchange and then redeeming them in the United States for dollars, generating a guaranteed profit.
“With successive waves of people entrusting him with their cash, Ponzi needed only enough money to pay off those people redeeming their coupons,” David Margolick wrote in The Times in a 2005 review of Mr. Zuckoff’s book. “Of course, with the prospect of increasing their savings exponentially every couple of months, few ever redeemed anything.”
Mr. Ponzi was convicted of mail fraud in 1920 and served time in federal and state prisons before he was deported to Italy in 1934, never having become a citizen. He died penniless in Rio de Janeiro in 1949 and was buried in a pauper’s cemetery there.
Why did his name become synonymous with hucksterism?
“He did it with such verve and charisma, and it attracted so much attention,” Mr. Zuckoff said. “It was such an enormous scheme at the time, and it happened when newspapers were so focused on these kinds of things. And there is something quite sonorous about his name. There was a guy preceding him named Miller. A Miller scheme doesn’t trip off the tongue quite as happily.”
Though the magnitude, scale and details are different, Mr. Ponzi’s scheme and the fraud that Mr. Madoff has been charged with both speak to their eras. Mr. Zuckoff said.
“People didn’t have access to great wealthy or opportunities, and Ponzi was providing it to them,” Mr. Zuckoff said, describing the society of Boston in the early 20th century. “They were sure the Brahmins, the white-shoe bankers of Beacon Hill, were keeping it to themselves. At least conceptually, he was democratizing wealth.”
Mr. Zuckoff added:
Just as Ponzi’s approach was right for his time, if the allegations are true, so were Madoff’s. What did Madoff offer? He offered tremendous exclusivity. People want to be part of a club. Just as they had to stretch to get into the Palm Beach Country Club, that that insider feeling carried over to being part of the Madoff investment club.
Mr. Zuckoff continued:
Ponzi was a great equalizer, tapped into the desires of the masses, while for Madoff, the brilliance there, if the allegations are true, is that he tapped into the desires of the elite. They weren’t looking for the big score — they were looking for great returns and brilliant access.
Though he acknowledged the failure of his scheme, Mr. Ponzi died maintaining that he had acted in good faith. “He was self-deluding,” Mr. Zuckoff said. “The underpinning of his scheme was a theoretically possible form of arbitrage. He was sure that if he just had enough money to carry it out it would be O.K. — and on paper it would have, but it would logistically have been impossible.”