Bernard L. Madoff is alleged to have pulled off one of the biggest frauds in Wall Street history. But there were multiple red flags along the way, including a series of accusations leveled against Mr. Madoff's operation. Now some are asking why regulators and investors didn't pick up on the alleged scheme long ago.
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"There's no smoking gun, but if you added it all up you wonder why people either did not get it or chose to ignore the red flags," says Jim Vos, who runs Aksia LLC, a firm that advises investors and came away worried after examining Mr. Madoff's operation.
On Thursday, Mr. Madoff was arrested for what federal agents described as a massive Ponzi scheme, which could leave investors with billions in losses. A spokesman for Mr. Madoff said: "Bernie Madoff is a longstanding leader in the financial services industry and we are cooperating fully with the government and regulators investigations into this unfortunate set of events."
The first tip-off for some was the steady returns generated by the firm in every kind of market. Mr. Madoff would buy a basket of stocks resembling an S&P index while simultaneously selling options that pay off for the buyer if these stocks soar, while also buying options that pay off if the index tumbles. The supposed goal was to have smooth, steady returns.
Harry Markopolos, who years ago worked for a rival firm, researched Mr. Madoff's stock-options strategy and was convinced the results likely weren't real.
"Madoff Securities is the world's largest Ponzi Scheme," Mr. Markopolos, wrote in a letter to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 1999.
Mr. Markopolos pursued his accusations over the past nine years, dealing with both the New York and Boston bureaus of the SEC, according to documents he sent to the SEC reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Read more about previous Ponzi schemes.
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In a statement late Friday, the SEC said "staff from the Division of Enforcement in New York completed an investigation in 2007, and did not refer the matter to the Commission for enforcement action." The SEC said it reopened the investigation Thursday. It's not clear what the focus of the 2007 investigation was, or why it was closed. A person familiar with the matter said it related to issues raised by Mr. Markopolos.
Also striking some as odd: Mr. Madoff operated as a broker dealer with an asset management division. Why not simply act as a hedge fund and pocket big gains, rather than profit from trading commissions as the firm seemed to be doing, they asked.
Joe Aaron, for long a hedge fund professional, found that structure suspicious and in 2003 warned a colleague to steer clear of the fund. "Why would a good businessman work his magic for pennies on the dollar?"
Conflicts of interest also proved a concern. "There was no independent custodian involved who could prove the existence of assets," says Chris Addy, founder of Montreal-based Castle Hall Alternatives, which vets hedge funds for clients seeking to invest money. "There's a clear and blatant conflict of interest with a manager using a related-party broker-dealer. Madoff is enormously unusual in that this is not a structure I've seen."
Some trading pros said Mr. Madoff's purported strategy couldn't be pulled off profitably while managing tens of billions of dollars.
"It seemed implausible that the S&P 100 options market that Madoff purported to trade could handle the size of the combined feeder funds' assets which we estimated to be $13 billion," Mr. Vos says.
Recent securities filings showed that the firm held less than $1 billion of shares, raising questions about where the rest of the money was. Some of Mr. Madoff's investors say they were told the firm put the bulk of its money in cash-equivalents at the end of each quarter, explaining why the public filings showed so few shares, but raising questions about where the proof was for all the cash.
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Until at least November, 2006, the firm, which claimed to manage billions of dollars and be among the largest market makers in the stock market, used as its auditor Friehling & Horowitz, a small New City, New York firm.
Mr. Vos says his firm hired a private investigator and determined that the accounting firm had only three employees, one of whom was 78 and lived in Florida, and another was a secretary, and that it operated in a 13 foot by 18 foot office. His firm felt that was too small an operation to keep an eye on such a large firm operating a complicated trading strategy. A message left for the accounting firm was not returned.
Meanwhile, a series of media stories also raised questions about Madoff's operations, including a piece entitled "Madoff Tops Charts; Skeptics Ask How" in industry publication MAR/Hedge in May, 2001, and a subsequent story in Barron's. Mr. Madoff generally brushed off reporters' questions, citing the audited results and arguing that his business was too complicated for outsiders to understand.—Kara Scannell and Jenny Strasburg contributed to this article
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