How Do You Recognise a Bernie Madoff?

Last Updated Jul 7, 2009 12:34 AM EDT

Bernie Madoff has just been sentenced for 150 years, the maximum allowed. I have just spent a morning to reading about Madoff, and in particular his personality, in various articles. Perhaps the most poignant comment was by a woman whose husband invested and lost money with Madoff:

"--My father said, 'Be careful of them [the Madoffs]. This is a big Ponzi scheme.' And that was 15 years ago."
How did the father recognise Madoff as a fraud when so many thousands did not?

Talk is a big clue and the first words he mentioned to his secretary during her recruitment interview are revealing: "My firm is built on reputation, and I liked the way you sounded on the phone. How someone sounds on the phone is very important to me, because it's the first impression people get. Appearances are very important, and the way you're dressed is perfect." The interview lasted 15 minutes. He did no reference checking and made an offer that had to be accepted in 10 minutes. This combination of focus on appearance, assessing people quickly on whether they are winners or losers and making a game of a key decision are all tell-tale signs of a corporate psychopath.

The other give away is dress. I have also blogged about the colours of the sociopath.

Madoff certainly dressed expensively but conservatively reflecting mainly his age. However the comments about Madoff's wife, Ruth by his secretary are again revealing: "As I got to know her, I learned that she would spare no expense for her appearance --- clothes, designer handbags, expensive haircuts." We tend to like those who are like ourselves and the Madoffs are no exception. If you want to really know someone, meet their partner. In Madoff's case this was easy to do.

Part of the difficulty of dealing with someone like Madoff is his occupation. Sociopaths are very interested in material wealth and gravitate to industries where money is being made, particularly such as financial services. While there is some debate whether Madoff is a sociopath, I find it difficult to regard someone who defrauds thousands of investors of around US$65 billion as your average sort of guy. I have already blogged about recognising corporate psychopaths However it is worth remembering one of my favourite quotes:"Take any 10 bankers in New York: 5 will be mediocre, 3 truly gifted, and 2 should be in jail." This applies to any major financial city. Never let one person or entity be in control of more than 10% of your disposable wealth. The simple reality is that over time you will always choose some losers so you need to diversify. Those unfortunate investors who gave Madoff 100 percent control of their money in part must blame themselves.