Bernard Madoff: a Financial Terrorist?

December 25, 2008 BY danariely

This week we learned that former Nasdaq chairman Madoff likely swindled investors out of $50 billion – arguably the largest financial fraud ever. And thinking about the gravity of the scam, it occurred to me that Madoff’s scam could be compared in terms of its effects to terrorism. Here’s how:

Consider that there was a time when terrorism wasn’t the big deal that it is now. This was before advances in technology, when terrorists only had recourse to low-level weaponry like stones and knives – which, while harmful on an individual level, are not quite weapons of mass destruction. In time, though, “better” technology came along, leading in turn to “better” terrorist tactics: suicide bombing and the like. Still peanuts, though, compared to what came later: 9/11 planes, bio terror – this is when things really got serious; now even one crazy person can cause a world of damage.

Now, I think Madoff’s case is equivalent in a financial sense. Whereas in the past one person’s monetary misdeeds could affect a handful of people at most, now there’s more at stake: a single person – like Madoff – can cause a whole lot of fiscal damage. And the reason lies in interconnections: when companies began investing with other companies, any fraud can spread and cause damage across many companies.

There’s one other similarity here. What makes terrorism so powerful are its randomness and intentionality: it can strike any time, and you never know when you’ll be a victim and it is done on purpose. Things that we can’t predict, control or at least think we can control make us more afraid. And that’s exactly the case with Madof’s scheme: the investers probably assumed that they were in control and all of a sudeen we all learned that we are much less in control, and that someone can do this to any of us.

If we view the stock market through this terrorism perspective, and we understand that just a few individuals can cause so much damage, it becomes clear that more regulation is needed – we do so much to check people at airports — shouldn’t we use the same level of security for hedge funds?