March 31, 2009

Now, That's Gutsy

SINCE I LAST POSTED REGULARLY, the scandal over the immense Ponzi scheme which Bernard Madoff ran has in many ways come and gone. As we now know, Mr Madoff has been exposed as not merely a charlatan and fraud, but a twisted, ruthless sociopath whose depravity involved not just stealing from honest people but also from charities, religious endeavors, and other good institutions. As such -- if I may be permitted to borrow from Mencken -- it is The Rant's belief that Mr Madoff should be thrown off the top of the Washington Monument.

The Rant further believes that should Mr Madoff be found to have further accomplices, and said accomplices are found guilty of criminality in a court of law due to their actions in connection with the Ponzi scheme, that they should be beaten and paraded throughout the streets of New York, so that the people may revile them.

As for the rest of it -- well, I feel badly for the victims. If you read their e-mails to Judge Chin, many of them are heartbreaking; and they did not, after all, deserve to have their money stolen. But for the life of me, I can't understand why people would sink all their eggs into one basket.

For a moment, let's say Madoff truly had been a genius. Even if he had, why would any sane person put more than 10 percent or even 20 percent of their wealth under his control? It's not like other supposed sure things haven't blown up before, and we're talking sure things run by incredibly smart people. Things happen even if your investment manager isn't a crook. I know that many people hate dealing with money, particularly their own, but the old quip that "no one cares about your money as much as you" remains very valid, even in this day and age.

However, there was one e-mail in particular that made me laugh. It's on Page 36 of this helpful legal document. It gave me a chuckle for a couple of reasons. One, if it just happened to fall into the Southern District's e-mail box, it boils this case down to its nuts and bolts. Two, if a victim actually sent it in as a satire on the present situation, it is a work of genius. And three, its inclusion shows why the Government can never be relied upon to prevent such things before they happen -- because they miss things, even in situations when they shouldn't.

The letter reads, in part:

Dear Sir/Madam,

My name is Mr ---------- but my origin is from the Republic of Congo. I have an inherited fund I want to invest in a business in your country with the help of a local. I don't know about business but I found it wise to invest the funds in your country with your collaboration with me.

Ever since I move to Dubai due to the problem in my country, I have not been able to invest the funds in Dubai due to security reasons. Now I am seeking foreign assistance to transfer the funds to your country based on the news of their development. If you can assist, I am willing to give you 10% of the funds that is US$3.5 million ....

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:48 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 28, 2009

The Seven Lean Years

WELL, THIS HAS BEEN an interesting six months, hasn't it? Jesus Christ.

It occurred to me today that the last time I really wrote about business and finance here on The Rant -- heck, wrote anything of substance, really -- the market was still holding up rather well. Then the tidal wave which had been cruising towards land appeared on the horizon and broke upon the shore, and suddenly, things got a lot different for pretty much everyone.

Of course, not everyone has been affected as a result of the downturn. As I understand it, there is still work to be had out in the Great Plains or in the mineral-rich states out West, and I am sure everyone knows someone, despite the turmoil heaving around them, for whom the party has not stopped. Certainly I do. But at the opposite end there are those who find themselves in much reduced circumstances as a result of the panic: people who have lost their jobs; people who have lost their homes; people who have seen their marriages dissolve; people who have watched their nest eggs fall prey to fraud and skullduggery.

Then there are folks like me, who are somewhere in the middle. Most people, I'm guessing, find themselves standing on this uneasy middle ground. They're still working, but their jobs sure as hell aren't as secure as they were six months ago. They're still drawing pay, although it doesn't seem to stretch as much as it once did. They're not as prone to spending what they once did on anything, much less luxury items or the consumer staples beloved of the mass affluent (which in this day and age, is arguably pretty much everyone).

I find this annoying on an intellectual level. Emotionally, I can get along without spending money on most of the goods and services that I once did: one must react to survive. But on a purely mental level, it aggravates me, 'cause I'm falling into the great trap known as the Paradox of Thrift, and I know I'm falling into it. On the other hand, what else is there to do? My problem, at the end of the day, is my problem, so I react accordingly.

I would be in a stronger position, perhaps, if I worked in an industry that itself was not going through systemic changes. Those Loyal Rant Readers who know me personally -- and, by the by, thanks for checking in over the past few months, despite being greeted with a blank page -- know I work in a rather cyclical industry, and know this industry faces particularly severe challenges for a variety of reasons. Since I last wrote on topics other than football -- AND HOW ABOUT THOSE PITTSBURGH STEELERS -- I have found the ground I stand on has weakened substantially. The job security I once had is gone; my future is uncertain at best, and when all is said and done, I may discover that when the music stops, I'm left without a chair in which to sit.

Of course, if that does happen, I'll be perfectly understanding about it. Business is business. That, and I'm still somewhat confident that even if the unthinkable happened, I'd manage to land on my feet. But what gnaws at me is the uncertainty of it all, because that uncertainty has led me to conclude the only rational action is inaction. It makes no sense to cast my net elsewhere because of the uncertainty in the economy as a whole; yet it makes no sense for me to put all my eggs in my current basket because I can't draw a reasonable expectation for what's coming down the pike.

So I wait. I plan for the worst and hope for the best. It is the smart course to plot.

But it is not a satisfying one. I hold back on the opportunities in my personal life that, had things been better, I might have taken. I strengthen my redoubt against a storm which could arrive, like a nor'easter in the dead of February, with the fanfare and disruption that merits TEAM STORM COVERAGE, but which could also prove an anticlimactic trifle when it finally plows into shore. The knowledge of the extremes, but the realization that the likely outcome will end up somewhere between them, makes for a deadening combination.

What's left after one balances the equation? A lot of gallows humor. A bit of anxiety. An annoying amount of aches and pains that come with getting older. But along with that, a lot of good memories and laughter and moments in which I really did hit some home runs. Combine all that and I'm still out ahead on a personal level, even if I am not as ahead financially as I was this time six months ago. In the quiet before the dawn, there's something to be said for that.

In my next post -- and perhaps I'll finish it up this weekend, as I'm forcing myself to take a day off for myself -- I'll look at some of the clever strategies I'm using to adapt to my new reality. Like the Class B gas ration.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at 01:14 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack