I think Joe Nocera asks an important question: should taxpayers bail out the investors who lost their money in the Madoff scandal?
“'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.
"Mr. Hedges said: 'It’s like trying to do your own dentistry. 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.
"I spoke, for instance, to Phyllis Molchatsky, who lost $1.7 million with Mr. Madoff — and is now suing the S.E.C. to recoup her losses, on the grounds the agency was so negligent it should be forced to pony up. Her story is sure to rouse sympathy — Mr. Madoff was recommended to her by her broker as a safe place to put her money, and she felt virtuous making 9 or 10 percent a year when others were reaching for the stars. The failure of the S.E.C., she told me, “is a double slap in the face.” And she felt the government owed her. Her lawyer, who represents several dozen Madoff victims, told me he “wouldn’t be averse” to a victims’ fund.
"Even Eli Wiesel thought the government should help the victims — or at least the charitable institutions among them. “The government should come and say, ‘We bailed out so many others, we can bail you out, and when you will do better, you can give us back the money,’ ” he said at the Portfolio event.
"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."