As one New York Times write notes, there was an appalling lack of basic common sense displayed by those people who got taken in by the biggest Ponzi scheme in history:
[J]ust about anybody who actually took the time to kick the tires of Mr. Madoff’s operation tended to run in the other direction. James R. Hedges IV, who runs an advisory firm called LJH Global Investments, says that in 1997 he spent two hours asking Mr. Madoff basic questions about his operation. “The explanation of his strategy, the consistency of his returns, the way he withheld information — it was a very clear set of warning signs,” said Mr. Hedges. When you look at the list of Madoff victims, it contains a lot of high-profile names — but almost no serious institutional investors or endowments. They insist on knowing the kind of information Mr. Madoff refused to supply.
I suppose you could argue that most of Mr. Madoff’s direct investors lacked the ability or the financial sophistication of someone like Mr. Hedges. But it shouldn’t have mattered. Isn’t the first lesson of personal finance that you should never put all your money with one person or one fund? Even if you think your money manager is “God”? Diversification has many virtues; one of them is that you won’t lose everything if one of your money managers turns out to be a crook.
“These were people with a fair amount of money, and most of them sought no professional advice,” said Bruce C. Greenwald, who teaches value investing at the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University. “It’s like trying to do your own dentistry.” Mr. Hedges said, “It is a real lesson that people cannot abdicate personal responsibility when it comes to their personal finances.”
And that’s the point. People did abdicate responsibility — and now, rather than face that fact, many of them are blaming the government for not, in effect, saving them from themselves. Indeed, what you discover when you talk to victims is that they harbor an anger toward the S.E.C. that is as deep or deeper than the anger they feel toward Mr. Madoff. There is a powerful sense that because the agency was asleep at the switch, they have been doubly victimized. And they want the government to do something about it.
What happened to the victims of Bernard Madoff is terrible. But every day in this country, people lose money due to financial fraud or negligence. Innocent investors who bought stock in Enron lost millions when that company turned out to be a fraud; nobody made them whole. Half a dozen Ponzi schemes have been discovered since Mr. Madoff was arrested in December. People lose it all because they start a company that turns out to be misguided, or because they do something that is risky, hoping to hit the jackpot. Taxpayers don’t bail them out, and they shouldn’t start now. Did the S.E.C. foul up? You bet. But that doesn’t mean the investors themselves are off the hook. Investors blaming the S.E.C. for their decision to give every last penny to Bernie Madoff is like a child blaming his mother for letting him start a fight while she wasn’t looking.
The only thing the Madoff scandal proves is that rich people can be as gullible and stupid as the rest of us, and that not exercising personal responsibility has consequences.