Sometimes, even otherwise fascinating subject matter just gets beat to death and you feel you can’t possibly learn anything more about it. Or, more commonly, you just have no interest in trying.
A good example is the Beatles. I love the Beatles. But when the Get Back documentary aired in 2021, I thought: “Good grief, is there really more to know at this point?” When you seriously consider re-watching a 470-minute documentary, I’d say the answer is a firm “yes.”
I now feel similarly about the recent Madoff Netflix documentary.
We all heard and read a lot about Bernie, his family, his investors, and the math guy from Boston no one listened to. In fact, but for a strong urging from a trusted friend, I felt no inclination to dedicate any more time to this episode of human treachery.
I’m glad I did. Without serving as a spoiler, here are a handful of business/investing lessons I walked away with that only crystallized due to the unique storytelling approach of the filmmaker.
- Capital markets: If there is no precedent for something lucrative in the capital markets and someone tells you they are the first one, they’re probably doing something illegal. Everybody knows that though, right? Well, Madoff essentially convinced everyone – including some people as smart as you – that there was such a thing as no risk, high reward.
- Pedigree: Bad guys are smart. They know that law enforcement, regulators, and laypeople give you the benefit of the doubt when you belong to the right clubs, are on the right boards, and have a fancy office. Madoff was a calculated master of appearances in ways I never fully appreciated. So don’t ever skip the “verify” part of “trust but verify,” and remember that anyone is capable of malfeasance. Anyone. For example, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Citigroup are fined *billions* of dollars for a smorgasbord of torts (and the occasional felony)… every year.
- Silo: If you work for a company that forbids employees from one part of the company from so much as talking with employees from another part of the company… quit. If you come across a company like that as an investor… run, don’t walk away. When you hear it from the actual employees, the extent to which Madoff kept the market-making and asset management businesses separate for decades was stunning. It’s worth noting that Elizabeth Holmes did the exact same thing.
- Diligence: Analyzing whether you should invest in something can’t be principally based upon an assumption that purported “smart guys” who invested previously did exhaustive diligence. That’s what drove the feeder fund frenzy that turned Madoff’s nice little fraud into a bazillion-dollar hellscape. Well, at least everyone’s learned from this, no? Everyone perhaps other than Sand Hill Road, where it happens… every day.
And for those of you who are wondering, the Madoff docuseries is 221 minutes shorter than the other one.