Thursday, December 18, 2008

Criminal Capitalists:Madoff and Zell

Once again as financial markets collapse they reveal the truth that all capitalism is basically a ponzi scheme.

Madoff put under house arrest as celebrities, charities, banks disclose exposure

It befits the close of one of the most bizarre years in international finance to look at the collapse of one of its most extraordinary villains, Bernard Madoff, a former chairman of the Nasdaq sharemarket and a Wall Street titan.The crisis in the world financial system has its roots in excessive greed, stupidity, poor regulation and disappearing capital, and the story of Madoff's downfall and a $US50 billion sting bears many of the same hallmarks.

When Enron and World Com collapsed it was revealed that they were in cahoots with their accounting firms, who not only checked their books, but helped them cook those books in order to avoid taxes and to make it appear they were more profitable than they really were. And at the same time the SEC was not doing its job in fact as this recent scandal reveals they acted not as regulators but enablers of Mr. Madoffs criminal scheme.

SEC investigators discovered Madoff violations in 2006: WSJ

We should be surprised by this I think not, after all capitalism began as a joint effort between merchant bankers, pirates and private mercenaries. Why should it be any different four hundred years later.

Bernard Madoff 's $50 billion Ponzi scheme was so breathtaking that investors have been left speechless. But the alleged crook -- universally described as "charming" -- would not have succeeded were it not for the unbelievable gullibility of supposedly sophisticated investors.Madoff knew that just because people were rich it did not not make them smart -- that was the source of his success. All you have to do is talk about an investment philosophy that is vague but sounds really authoritative. Give people nonsensical statements that they glance at quickly. Make sure that the statements indicate steady returns of 10% to 13% a year. Many CFOs, CIOs and portfolio managers were amazed that Madoff produced such steady returns for so long. They were mathematically impossible. Barron's raised questions in 2001 about whether Madoff was "front-running" trades, an allegation he denied. Still, Madoff's rich buddies stood by his side.Maddoff somehow managed to convince a slew of banks and hedge funds, billionaires such as Mets owner Fred Wilpon, Yeshiva University along with charities associated with Steven Spielberg and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel that the laws of investing do not apply to them. The odds of anyone getting double-digit returns year after year are laughably small. They, of course, understood that, but figured why fix something that ain't broke. By turning a blind eye to fiscal reality, these victims showed almost as much greed as Madoff.

Madoffs clients are a who's who of the very financial institutions that lined up at the trough to be bailed out, and who claimed if they failed capitalism would collapse. In fact the whole collapse of America's financial market reveals that it was all a ponzi scheme.

After all, Madoff’s scheme -- at least in spirit, if not in its nefarious intent -- wasn’t much different than the business models at some of the nation’s largest failed financial institutions.
Back in May, four months before it collapsed, American International Group Inc. increased its dividend at the same time it unveiled plans to raise $12.5 billion in capital. Later, when its cash ran out, AIG got a government bailout, the size of which has expanded to about $150 billion.
Whether you call that a Ponzi scheme or something less sinister, AIG was paying old investors with money raised from new investors. The same could be said of many banks that blew through billions of dollars in freshly raised capital the past couple of years, continuing to pay large dividends even as their balance sheets quietly imploded. So why have other Ponzi-esque operators emerged scot-free (so far) with taxpayer bailouts, while Madoff gets pinched?

And one of these financial institutions caught up in the Madoff affair is UBS the Swiss banking company recently indited for using its banks in Canada to hide U.S. billionares fortunes offshore in its banks acounts top avoid taxes, which is itself illegal, but just another case of business as usual until we are caught.

Howewver while Mr. Madoff's actions have been declared illegal, another capitalist billionaire Sam Zell is able to do the same thing legally!!! And there really is no difference between them.

Sam Zell, Tribune's billionaire CEO, but rather the thousands of Tribune employees whose stock ownership plan was jerry-rigged to fund the company's buyout last year. Mr. Zell was the architect of the deal, but put up only around $300-million of his own money as a kind of option to later buy financial control of the company for as little as $500-million more. Under the mind-boggling structure Mr. Zell and his advisers came up with, the Tribune ESOP owns 100 per cent of the shares. What happens to them? The Chicago Tribune said it most starkly, quoting an employee conference call with Mr. Zell: “The ESOP, which Mr. Zell said a year ago offered employee “owners” the chance to share richly in Tribune Co.'s eventual success, could be wiped out, leaving thousands of Tribune Co. employees with no company retirement plan besides what they elect to save in a 401(k).”

Tribune’s Chapter 11 filing likely means a court delay for six current and ex-L.A. Times employees who are trying to oust billionaire owner Sam Zell from the board of directors. But in the meantime, they can point to Zell’s bankruptcy-protection filing as Exhibit A in the court of public opinion. “The sort of critique we made in the lawsuit has been borne out,” says plaintiff Henry Weinstein, the Times’ former legal affairs writer and now a professor at UCI’s new law school. In addition to the Times, Tribune’s assets include KTLA-TV, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Cubs. In late 2007 Zell took the company private by putting up $315 million and borrowing $8 billion. The class-action suit, filed in September, accused Zell of orchestrating a scam and burying the company in debt. Zell called the suit “a distraction that’s unnecessary.” Says Weinstein: “We are certainly going to try to be heard in the bankruptcy court. There are all sorts of employee interests” ...

The following is an official statement from Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa.
"When billionaire Sam Zell took Tribune private in an overleveraged, doomed deal that swiftly brought down the 161-year-old media giant, the risks involved were placed squarely on the shoulders of Tribune workers. Now, as Tribune's creditors head to bankruptcy court for payback, these workers should go directly to the front of the line.
By transferring 100 percent ownership of the company and some $13 billion of debt to an S-Corp Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) in the buyout, Zell insulated himself from tax responsibilities and mortgaged the future retirement savings of Tribune employees. Despite owning 100 percent of the company, employees were given no voice in the governance of the company or in the plan itself. They've had no say in the terms of their own debt obligations or decisions related to how best to service that debt.
Tribune contributions to employee retirement savings for employee-owners changed from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan structured as the ESOP. Employees participating in the ESOP can't diversify their holdings until they reach age 55.
The first of the company's contributions to the ESOP was expected to happen in the first quarter, but now -- with the Tribune mired in Chapter 11 bankruptcy -- it's unclear whether that will happen or whether those shares will have any value.
Not everyone lost on the deal. Tribune executives made millions, including CEO Dennis FitzSimons, who engineered the deal with Zell and raked in $17.7 million in severance and other payments and cashed in his stock for $23.8 million. Shareholders traded in stock rated deep into junk territory for cash representing a 21 percent premium over the stock price just before the transaction. The banks that lent Tribune the money shared some $47 million in fees.
Citigroup and Merrill Lynch who advised Tribune on the deal received $35.8 million and $37 million respectively. And billionaire Zell, who put up only $315 million in the deal, is expected to stand ahead of employees in the creditors' line at bankruptcy court.

Unfortunately Mr. Zell will not be sharing a cell with Mr.Madoff nor with another Chicago paper baron; Lord Black. Though he should.

Super Bubble Burst
Hedge Funds, Junk Bonds, Ponzi Schemes

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1 comment:

leftdog said...

Great post. This proves, once again, the contention of many that the 'unfettered free market' is a license for human greed to flourish, even to the point of massive criminality! Thanks.