Monday, November 19, 2012

The Symmetry Between Ponzi Scams and Ponzi Financed Global Financial Markets

Lessons from the Aman Ponzi Scam

A few months back I warned that the current negative real rates regime will foster and bring about accounts of fraudulent financial operations such as Ponzi and pyramiding schemes 

I wrote last March[1],
Since fixed incomes will also suffer from interest rate manipulations, many will fall victim or get seduced to dabble with Ponzi schemes marketed by scoundrels who would use the current policy induced environment as an opportunity to exploit a gullible public.
I even followed this up last week[2],
instead of locking money through interest rate dividends from savings account in the financial institutions, zero bound regime or negative real rates which are part of financial repression have been forcing people to chase on yields and gamble in order to generate returns. So the public have become more of a “risk taker” and take on “greedy” activities in response to such policies. Some would even fall or become victims to Ponzi schemes which I expect to mushroom.
Enormous losses from Ponzi operations of the Aman Futures Group[3] to a whopping tune of Php 12 billion (US 289 million at 41.5 to a USD) from over 15,000 victims coming from various sectors, largely from Southern Philippines, particularly in Visayas and Mindanao, has been a recent revelation.

The streak of large scale financial hoaxes continues to surface.

Today, another financial scam in Lanao, also in Mindanao, by an alleged Jachob “Coco” Rasuman group[4], whom preyed on a smaller number, specifically 29 Muslims investors by defrauding them of Php 300 million (USD 7.22 m) was reported by media. Ironically, these scumbags got gypped or suffered a dose of their own medicine, when they invested in Aman Futures. Talk about karma. 

Negative real rates, which in reality punishes savers and creditors, have been forcing many people to chase on yields in order to preserve on their savings. Such environment has encouraged the vulnerable public to take unnecessary risks and gamble which unscrupulous agents take advantage of.

While negative real rates necessarily do provide the incentives for many in the public to get financially duped or hoodwinked, this has not been a sufficient reason.

A big part has been a mélange the lack of financial alternatives, which has been tied or linked to the dearth of financial education, as well as, the paucity of critical thinking and self-discipline which has been associated with the welfare mentality.

All Ponzi operations have been anchored on “something for nothing” dynamic.

Typically astronomical returns on placements by early investors are paid for by the infusion of new money from new investors. Of course, sky high returns are dangled as compelling motivation for financial patsies to ensnare the bait. Yet, once the critical mass or where insufficient money from new investors to pay for existing ones has been reached, the whole bubble operations collapses like a house of cards.

It is quite obvious that a yield offer of something like 50% a month would translate to a nominal 600% returns a year. Yet nobody seems to have the common sense to ask “what kind of businesses or investments would return at least 600% a year”?

The apparent insufficiency of financial common sense can be traced to the underdeveloped conditions of the country’s financial markets. 

The development of financial markets has been associated with greater degree of economic development. According McKinsey Global Institute[5], most of the emerging markets’ financial depth has been between 50 and 250 percent of GDP compared to 300 to 600 percent of GDP for developed countries. In other words, increasing standards of living from the accretion of individual savings, which became the cornerstone of financial intermediation that led to the development of financial markets, has played a significant role in capital formation and the subsequent growth in the economy.

Financial depth has been conventionally measured[6] through:

-the traditional banking system,
-the non-banking financial institutions[7] which comprises risk pooling institutions (Insurance), contractual Savings Institutions (Pensions and Mutual funds), Market Makers (broker dealer), Specialized Sectoral Financiers (real estate, leasing companies, payday lending) and Financial Service Providers (security and mortgage brokers) and finally
-financial markets[8], particularly capital markets (stock and bonds), commodity markets, derivatives, money markets, futures markets, insurance markets and foreign exchange markets.

One would note of the severe deficiencies of the state of non-banking financial institutions as well as the financial markets. Example the Philippines remains as a laggard in the ASEAN regions commodity markets having no existing commodity markets. Another example is that specialized investment vehicles have been inaccessible to the public such as short sales (short sales exist but operating rules render them useless), derivatives (which have been limited to banks), and select futures (e.g. currency forwards also restricted to banks) among many others.

Thus the immature state of financial markets essentially restricts the transmission mechanism of savings to investments that has functioned as one key hurdle to economic growth and development.

Again, no less than the heavily politicization, taxation and overregulation of the industry or the political unwillingness to openly promote alternative savings and investment vehicles, as well as incentivize industry competition, has been responsible for the backward state of affairs.

Because many lack the access to such legitimate financial alternative options, there has been similarly less desire or motivation to imbue the necessary knowledge to protect oneself from financial knavery.

And while education may help, in reality, contextual education to establish the virtues of self-discipline or emotional intelligence is paramount.

Education per se (or education as a function of social signaling) has not deterred the infamous Bernard Madoff from having to cream, bamboozle and embezzle $50 billion off from a legion of supposedly professional finance managers representing top banks, insurers, hedge funds[9] with his Ponzi version which got busted in 2008.

Also, the public’s increased reliance on politicians to exercise the paternalist ethical plane of behavioral guidance for financial operators and for market participants has prompted for the substitution of self-responsibility and mutual respect for dependency: the welfare mentality. Plainly put, such victims outsourced self-responsibility to equally gullible local politicians, who in a bizarre twist of events, “openly endorsed” and likewise became victims of the grand Philippine Ponzi scam. This simply serves as another lucid example of the knowledge problem at work.

So while national political authorities swiftly use such crisis as opportunity to pontificate on the supposed paternalist virtues in seeking redress and the rightful justice deserving for the aggrieved parties, these politicians skirt the blame of the adverse effects from their policies. Out of ignorance or in collusion with the political establishment or both, mainstream media has been equally culpable for concealing the social effects of bubble policies.

Nonetheless, bubble policies promote bubble psychology, bubble attitudes and bubble actions.

As the late economic historian Charles P. Kindleberger wrote in Mania’s, Panics and Crashes (p.66 John Wiley)[10]
Commercial and financial crisis are intimately bound up with transactions that overstep the confines of law and morality shadowy though these confines be. The propensities to swindle and be swindled run parallel to the propensity to speculate during a boom. Crash and panic, with their motto of sauve qui peut induce still more to cheat in order to save themselves. And the signal for panic is often the revelation of some swindle, theft embezzlement or fraud
The Addiction to Legalized Ponzi Financing

Think of it, if Ponzi schemes are considered illegitimate because they arise from financing investment operations by enticing new money[11] from new investors by offering surrealistic returns, how would one call today’s financial markets which operate on the deepening dependency on central banks to provide ever increasing “new” money to bolster or at least maintain elevated asset prices? 

Everyday we see signs of these.

A parallel universe represents an alternative reality. If doctrinal finance teaches that economic growth serves as indicator to corporate earnings which should get reflected on stock prices then Japan’s financial markets and her economy appear to operate on a parallel universe. That’s because economic growth and stock market pricing seems to move in diametrical directions which jettisons the conventional wisdom.

Ever since the 2011 triple whammy Earthquake-Tsunami-Fukushima Nuclear disaster, Japan’s economy continues to weaken. Japan has reportedly entered a mild recession in the 3rd Quarter[12]. Yet since April’s bottom, the Japan’s major equity bellwether the Nikkei 225 continues to gain grounds.

Yet much of these pronounced gains had been made last week, ironically when the Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda dissolved the parliament and simultaneously called for a snap election on December 16th[13].

His expected replacement, Shinzo Abe, leader of the once dominant Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) has been widely expected to pressure the Bank of Japan (BoJ) to aggressively stimulate the economy.

Thus like the Pavlovian conditioned stimulus, the smell of freshly minted or digitally created money sends the financial markets into a rapturous bliss


So amidst the announcement of a recession, the Nikkei 225 jumped 3.4% for this week. That’s effectively half of the modest year to date return of 6.73%. The reversal of the Nikkei’s year to date performance from loss to gains come at the heels of further weakening of major global equity bellwethers.

In other words, Japan’s politicians, media and the marketplace continue to carry unwavering faith and undying hope over the BoJ’s action, despite the series of QEs launched since. In short, all the money printing did has been to boost asset prices even as the economy tumbled. Such Pollyannaish belief is tantamount to “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Someone once defined this as insanity.

Just last month, the BoJ announced a back to back QE 8th[14] and QE 9th[15] in a span of one week.

Yet despite all the easing polices by other major economies, previous gains continue to dissipate from the current string of losses.

Since the latest peak of the S&P 500 in mid-September 2012, the major US bellwether has lost in 6 out of 9 weeks, which as of Friday’s close, has been off about 7% from the zenith and has pared down year to date gains to just 6.42%. 

President Obama’s class warfare policies which will raise capital gains and dividend tax substantially, contradicts the US Federal Reserve’s easing policies, thus US equity markets remain plagued by political uncertainties[16]. US markets remain hostaged to politics. 

Yet what has been apparent is the volatile environment from the addiction to central bank Ponzi financing.

Financial analyst and fund manager Doug Noland of the Credit Bubble Bulletin[17] at the Prudent Bear neatly captures the soul of today’s policy based Ponzi-bubble dynamics
a Credit Bubble is sustained only through ever-increasing quantities of “money” and Credit.  The greater the Bubble, the greater the required policy response to sustain the inflation.  But, importantly, the greater the policy measures imposed the greater the market reaction – and the greater the market reaction the greater the necessity for even bigger policy interventions in the future.  

[3] Thousands duped in P12-billion scam November 14, 2012

[4] Bigger scam in Lanao Sur November 18, 2012

[5] McKinsey Global Institute Mapping global capital markets 2011 August 2011

[6] Financial Depth (Size) Rethinking the Role of the State in Finance

[8] Financial market

[11] Ponzi scheme

[12] Editorial Japan Times Nip the recession in the bud, November 17, 2012

[13] The Globe and Mail Election call puts spotlight on Bank of Japan, November 14, 2012

[17] Doug Noland, When Money Dies, Prudent Bear November 16,2012

1 comment:

alternative investments said...

Really love the analogy between the ponzi scheme and the credit bubble. I had not thought about it that way, but its so totally true. Just like with a ponzi scheme, as old debt comes to, even more new debt must be created. Once you are in the cycle of ponzi, there is really no way out absent a huge bubble bursting.