Madoff Gets What He Deserves, but His Victims Are Not All Blameless

Last Updated Jan 17, 2010 4:53 PM EST

Bernard Madoff will remain a guest of the federal government, possibly for the rest of his life. He deserves his 150-year prison term, but he could not have pulled off his multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme without a lot of help.

Not from his employees and business associates or even his wife, whose support for him suddenly seems less staunch. The others who were complicit in his crimes include many of the victims whose greed allowed them to hand their money over to Madoff, even when his explanation for what he did and how he achieved success made little sense and seemed to be - and was - too good to be true.

(Here are thoughts from other MoneyWatchers on Madoff's sentence, the fallout from his fraud and lessons for investors.)

The purported strategy itself - buying blue-chip stocks and buying and selling options tied to them to goose up returns and limit risk - was not all that unusual. What was way out of the ordinary was his apparent ability to generate returns in the low double digits while almost never incurring a loss, even over brief periods, no matter what the stock market was doing.

Madoff was so persuasive because he did not persuade. He explained his results away by not explaining them - telling his clients that they wouldn't be able to understand his methods. Offering modest, consistent returns instead of big scores also helped, as did his status as a long-serving and well respected figure on Wall Street.

So it's easy to see why well-off investors were drawn to him, but having their interest piqued is one thing and writing checks for more than many of us make in a lifetime is another. As seductive as his pitch was, doubts were expressed about Madoff's activities as early as a decade ago. His more recent victims either failed to heed them or ignored warning signs that should have arisen when making their own investigations.

Many of Madoff's victims are truly innocent. They paid good money to financial advisors, accountants and lawyers who should have known better; these clients had every reason to expect the advice they were given to be sound. As for the large sums invested by charitable foundations, if their boards were greedy it was for the best of reasons.

Others are guilty of conventional, run-of-the-mill greed. That makes them foolish but far from alone. The scandal is being treated as a unique event, but while the scale is unprecedented, there is something depressingly and reliably familiar, and human, about what has unfolded.

A bull market creates a climate in which investors believe that strong returns are easy to come by, and then someone like Madoff comes along to meet their expectations. After sentiment turns negative, people are less inclined to buy the story (or anything else); less money comes in to keep the scheme going, existing customers ask to cash out and get the bad news.

The notion that we are co-conspirators in our own downfalls has existed for millennia, long before Wall Street was invented. It's a central element of Greek tragedy, and as anyone knows from reading "Dracula" (or watching "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), a vampire can only come into a potential victim's home with an invitation.

Bernard Madoff has been defanged, and the way the public feels about him, he should consider himself lucky that a stake through the heart wasn't an option for the judge. But victims who think such punishment would fit the crime should keep in mind their own role in the fraud and recall it the next time a sharp operator with an extraordinary opportunity comes along and asks for their money.