Omni Crush: "No One Would Listen"

Tom on March 09, 2010

For both professional reasons, wanting to keep up with the new nonfiction, and personal ones, wanting to figure out just what the hell happened, I've been reading a lot lately about the financial meltdown in 2008. Most of those accounts take place in board rooms and Senate chambers, and on cell phone calls between Sun Valley and the Caribbean: CEOs talking to CEOs, or to cabinet members or to committee chairs. Things happen at a lightning pace, entire white-collar armies are mustered into conference rooms to do overnight due diligence, and billions of dollars in debt are shifted between balance sheets.

It's all glamorous and horrifying and thoroughly unreal, which made turning next to Harry Markopolos's No One Would Listen--well, I wouldn't say refreshing, but it does make you feel like you've come back to earth. Markopolos, as you likely know, especially if you've been watching television (e.g. last night's Daily Show) the past few weeks, is the mid-level securities executive who blew the whistle on Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme throughout the last decade like he was Joey Crawford reffing a Spurs game. While there are a few cameos by minor European royalty in his account, it's definitely a story of the the other side of Wall Street: not the celebrity CEOs and the big Manhattan investment banks, but the midsized firms out in the suburbs with interchangeable names like Rampart and Benchmark and people like Markopolos who work under pressure in the (still relatively well-paid) trenches to put together "investment products" with returns (or at least strategies) that will catch the eye of institutional and wealth-management investors. That's what first tipped Markopolos to Madoff: word got out about Madoff's freakishly consistent and robust yearly returns, and Markopolos's bosses pushed him to figure out what Madoff was doing so they could do it too. After about "five minutes" of looking into it, Markopolos was sure something was fishy, and he spent most of the next 10 years trying to find out more, and find someone in authority who would do something about it.

I remember when the Madoff story first came out, I read a bit of Markopolos's original expose memo to the SEC--famously titled, "The World's Largest Hedge Fund Is a Fraud"--and thought, "That guy should write a book." The memo is full of math, but it's as wonderfully direct and readable as you might expect from a title like that (and yes, you can't fathom how professional securities regulators could have possibly ignored its relentless logic and evidence). Now he has written a book--with the help of his team of fellow investigators and writer David Fisher--and it is indeed direct, and fascinating. Markopolos, as he'd be the first to tell you, is blunt and rough around the edges, and his book is too. It's not polished by any means, but it's clear, and you can feel the author's still-seething anger running just below the surface throughout. By the end of it, he's as angry at the SEC as he is at Madoff--who he once assumed would have him killed if he knew what Markopolos was doing--and when you see the case that he repeatedly laid out over the years, which showed that Madoff was crooked far beyond even the standards of what Markopolos paints as a congenitally--if not completely--shady industry, you'll be just as furious. --Tom

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