Perhaps the biggest irony of the Bernard Madoff case is that Harry Markopolos, the investor-turned-investigator who for years warned other investors and the Securities and Exchange Commission that Mr. Madoff was running a Ponzi scheme, today is haunted by regrets that he was not more effective in getting others to heed his whistleblowing, according to yesterday's Wall Street Journal.
Mr. Markopolos shouldn't fault himself; rather, he deserves immense credit and appreciation. He did more than anyone else to sound the alarm. According to the article, he did manage to warn off some prospective Madoff investors. The SEC inspector general is investigating how the agency missed the alleged fraud, but surely Mr. Markopolos bears no blame. He sent the SEC and investors a detailed 19-page analysis, listing 25 red flags about Mr. Madoff's supposed investment results.
Certainly, any failure to convince others was not due to lack of effort. Perhaps Mr. Markopolos lacked only an effective medium to communicate his warning. Here's a thought experiment: What would have happened if Mr. Markopolos had blogged his analysis? That is, what if he had posted the entire piece on a blog, under his name or a pseudonym?
We'll never know the answer, but here's what I think might have followed:
• The post would have quickly spread far and wide among traders and investors. It's a small Street, as the saying goes, and an analysis raising questions about the investment results of a prominent name such as Madoff would have sent e-mails flying.
• Those who had money invested with Mr. Madoff -- or who were thinking of investing -- would have done the same math that Mr. Markopolos had done, undoubtedly reaching the same conclusion. The resulting rush to pull money out and the avoidance of adding new money would have meant a faster end to the alleged Ponzi scheme.
• If indeed there were some fund managers who had invested with Madoff suspecting that something was amiss but going along for the lucrative ride, as Paul Kedrosky has suggested, they would have been forced to confront the newly unveiled facts.
• Would Mr. Madoff have initiated some sort of "retribution" against Mr. Markopolos, as the Journal says that Mr. Markopolos feared? Even an anonymous blogger can be identified. Again, it's impossible to know. We do know that Mr. Madoff was chairman of Nasdaq, head of one of its largest market-making firms, and that he and others at his firm had advisory roles with regulators. Could Mr. Markopolos have been blackballed by the Street or subjected to greater regulatory scrutiny because he was taking on an industry leader? Mr. Markopolos also could have been sued for libel, and even if his analysis ultimately would have been proven factual and not libelous, defending a lawsuit is an expensive proposition. But it would seem unlikely that Mr. Madoff would risk exposing his alleged scheme by bringing a lawsuit. All in all, however, it's easy to see how the possibility of regulatory retribution or a lawsuit would have had a chilling effect on a decision to go public. A whistleblower would need some wherewithal to blog his allegations.
That's a lot of might haves and would haves, I know, but personally, I believe that blogging's fast, viral distribution would have been highly effective in this case, and brought down the alleged Ponzi scheme in a hurry. I wonder if future whistle blowers will use blogs if they believe their information is not getting through on official channels.
What do you think?