Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game

Madoff, the SEC, hedge funds & the IC

After reading the testimony of Harry Markopolos, the whistleblower in the Madoff Ponzi scheme who crafted such a compelling reconstruction of events he deserves a Nobel Prize in Literature simply for the writing itself, I thought, “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” Markopolos’ 58-page confessional and call to arms illustrates a process so painstakingly onerous, it invoked an image straight out of Kafka’s A Message from the Emperor:

The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forwards easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvelous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. Never will he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved.

Markopolos began investigating Bernie Madoff in 1999, but due to consistent inadequacies and roadblocks, he was unable to elicit any action that could stop Madoff from his carrying out his odyssey of deceit. As easy as it would be to burn Madoff at the stakes and line up all the individuals guilty of inaction and ignorance for the firing squad, I’m more interested in the future of hedge funds.

For over a decade I have been fascinated by hedge funds – mainly due to the lack of transparency and oversight they have enjoyed since their inception in 1949. In reading Mr. Markopolos’ testimony, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to the Intelligence Community, who after 9/11, has been accused of “failing to connect the dots” (even though the dots in many ways were connected). Like the Intelligence Community, hedge funds are a dark market in that:

“…they do not trade on exchanges, they are not registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission, they are subject to few regulations, and their investors are not extended the same consumer-protection benefits that are given to investors in mutual funds and other entities that fall under the 1940 Investment Company Act.” (Knowledge@Wharton)

My greatest curiosity concerning hedge funds revolves around who benefits from them (and how greatly) and how have they continued to operate in such opaque circumstances after bombastic failures such as Long-Term Capital Management which required bailout supervision by the Federal Reserve. Whenever staggering amounts of money are involved, as is the case with hedge funds and the intelligence community and national security/defense, I sometimes wonder if the breadth and reach of the implications of who benefits and how becomes such a quagmire that any effort to address them with transparency seems disastrous and humiliating at the level of The Emperor’s New Clothes.

In his 30-page course of action to address securities fraud, Mr. Markapolos offers insightful, well-defined, and reasonable solutions; however, he omits two important components: 1) hedge fund transparency/regulation (which is currently being tackled by the Grassley/Levin Hedge Fund Transparency Act and 2) information technology.

If the SEC can learn one thing from the IC, it is the benefit of an integrated information technology system. The SEC, with its twelve offices across the country, along with agencies such as the IRS and DoJ, needs a better way to “talk to each other” (akin to an Intelink) – so the organizations can fluidly share information and utilize communal services to detect fraud. Markopolus’ idea of providing all employees access to a Bloomberg machine (a top-of-the-line financial, regulatory, and market database) is a plainly obvious one, noting that “most SEC offices are lucky to have even one Bloomberg machine for the entire region’s use.” The IC, via the DNI‘s Intelligence Community Enterprise Services (ICES), is provided a set of solutions that include enterprise search, a commnunity-wide wiki, blogs, instant messaging, social bookmarking, document sharing, video sharing, image sharing, and more. Our regulatory agencies need a common suite of tools, the same ones used by private/commericial financial institutions, that allow for greater analytic and data access capabilities.

If the IC can learn one thing from Markopolos and the SEC, it’s that if speaking truth to power is tough, bringing action against power is damn near impossible. Markopolos notes factors such as fear, lack of competence and vested interests as contributors to the abject failure of the regulatory system. His recommendation of creating an Office of the Whistleblower to “centralize the handling and investigation of whistleblower tips” is something the IC could implement to solicit and centralize anti-collaboration activities that would allow all IC members to contribute encountered instances of hoarding and/or resistance to knowledge-sharing in a systemic, protected manner. This would be in line with ICD 501 that strengthens the “sharing, integration, and management of information within the Intelligence Community (IC), and establishes policies for: (1) discovery; and (2) dissemination or retrieval of intelligence and intelligence-related information collected or analysis produced by the IC.”

If the IC and SEC can learn one thing from each other, it’s that while black markets will exist, there needs to be mechanisms to shed light on them.

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  1. I have been following the Bailout and Stimulus very carefully. It appears to me as a casual observer, that many of the lessons talked about above with regard to Madoff, may also have been occurring in the first part of the Bailout, and is only now being recognized. Additionally, I see huge parallels between Madoff and the Peanut Corp of America. Both were flagrantly breaking the law. In both instances, the Government received warnings well ahead of the final act. It would be extremely powerful if IC were able to share these lessons with other branches of Government. Collaboration using similar tools to fight different battles is a winning strategy employed by Police, Military and Corporations. Great article!
    Alan W. Silberberg, CEO, You2Gov

  2. That is another thought provoking article. Thanks. You make me wonder about the SEC. I wonder if they have desktop video or a common directory of employees or other basic IT. Maybe we should get an all volunteer team of IC folks to pay a visit to the SEC and help them figure out how to move forward? I wonder if part of the current stimulus package could be used to help them out? I saw the SSA is getting an IT upgrade in the package so maybe the SEC would make sense too.

    Anyway, thanks for the great article.

  3. While a thought provoking article concerning hedge funds, you make it sound like the IC has made major breakthroughs and is completely with it since 9/11. ICES is a superb organization that brings constant innovation through Intelink and yet is constantly underresourced and ignored as a key solution within individual agencies. The arcane processes of the IC are as deep and dark and unregulated as those governing the SEC. ICDs have been written but have loopholes big enough to drive entire fleets through them. Only when the DNI pulls the funding at agencies will they pay attention.

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