Don't Ask, Don't Tell

Bernie Madoff is so secretive, he even asks investors to keep mum

By ERIN E. ARVEDLUND  | MORE ARTICLES BY AUTHOR

Bernie Madoff might as well hang that sign on his secretive hedge-fund empire. Even adoring investors can't explain his enviably steady gains.Two years ago, at a hedge-fund conference in New York, attendees were asked to name some of their favorite and most-respected hedge-fund managers. Neither George Soros nor Julian Robertson merited a single mention. But one manager received lavish praise: Bernard Madoff.

Folks on Wall Street know Bernie Madoff well. His brokerage firm, Madoff Securities, helped kick-start the Nasdaq Stock Market in the early 1970s and is now one of the top three market makers in Nasdaq stocks. Madoff Securities is also the third-largest firm matching buyers and sellers of New York Stock Exchange-listed securities. Charles Schwab, Fidelity Investments and a slew of discount brokerages all send trades through Madoff.

[Bernard Madoff]

Some folks on Wall Street think there's more to how Madoff (above) generates his enviable stream of investment returns than meets the eye. Madoff calls these claims "ridiculous."

But what few on the Street know is that Bernie Madoff also manages $6 billion-to-$7 billion for wealthy individuals. That's enough to rank Madoff's operation among the world's three largest hedge funds, according to a May 2001 report in MAR Hedge, a trade publication.

What's more, these private accounts, have produced compound average annual returns of 15% for more than a decade. Remarkably, some of the larger, billion-dollar Madoff-run funds have never had a down year.

When Barron's asked Madoff Friday how he accomplishes this, he said, "It's a proprietary strategy. I can't go into it in great detail."

Nor were the firms that market Madoff's funds forthcoming when contacted earlier. "It's a private fund. And so our inclination has been not to discuss its returns," says Jeffrey Tucker, partner and co-founder of Fairfield Greenwich, a New York City-based hedge-fund marketer. "Why Barron's would have any interest in this fund I don't know." One of Fairfield Greenwich's most sought-after funds is Fairfield Sentry Limited. Managed by Bernie Madoff, Fairfield Sentry has assets of $3.3 billion.

A Madoff hedge-fund offering memorandums describes his strategy this way: "Typically, a position will consist of the ownership of 30-35 S&P 100 stocks, most correlated to that index, the sale of out-of-the-money calls on the index and the purchase of out-of-the-money puts on the index. The sale of the calls is designed to increase the rate of return, while allowing upward movement of the stock portfolio to the strike price of the calls. The puts, funded in large part by the sale of the calls, limit the portfolio's downside."

Among options traders, that's known as the "split-strike conversion" strategy. In layman's terms, it means Madoff invests primarily in the largest stocks in the S&P 100 index -- names like General Electric , Intel and Coca-Cola . At the same time, he buys and sells options against those stocks. For example, Madoff might purchase shares of GE and sell a call option on a comparable number of shares -- that is, an option to buy the shares at a fixed price at a future date. At the same time, he would buy a put option on the stock, which gives him the right to sell shares at a fixed price at a future date.

The strategy, in effect, creates a boundary on a stock, limiting its upside while at the same time protecting against a sharp decline in the share price. When done correctly, this so-called market-neutral strategy produces positive returns no matter which way the market goes.

Using this split-strike conversion strategy, Fairfield Sentry Limited has had only four down months since inception in 1989. In 1990, Fairfield Sentry was up 27%. In the ensuing decade, it returned no less than 11% in any year, and sometimes as high as 18%. Last year, Fairfield Sentry returned 11.55% and so far in 2001, the fund is up 3.52%.

Those returns have been so consistent that some on the Street have begun speculating that Madoff's market-making operation subsidizes and smooths his hedge-fund returns.

How might Madoff Securities do this? Access to such a huge capital base could allow Madoff to make much larger bets -- with very little risk -- than it could otherwise. It would work like this: Madoff Securities stands in the middle of a tremendous river of orders, which means that its traders have advance knowledge, if only by a few seconds, of what big customers are buying and selling. By hopping on the bandwagon, the market maker could effectively lock in profits. In such a case, throwing a little cash back to the hedge funds would be no big deal.

When Barron's ran that scenario by Madoff, he dismissed it as "ridiculous."

Still, some on Wall Street remain skeptical about how Madoff achieves such stunning double-digit returns using options alone. The recent MAR Hedge report, for example, cited more than a dozen hedge fund professionals, including current and former Madoff traders, who questioned why no one had been able to duplicate Madoff's returns using this strategy. Likewise, three option strategists at major investment banks told Barron's they couldn't understand how Madoff churns out such numbers. Adds a former Madoff investor: "Anybody who's a seasoned hedge- fund investor knows the split-strike conversion is not the whole story. To take it at face value is a bit naïve."

Madoff dismisses such skepticism. "Whoever tried to reverse-engineer \, he didn't do a good job. If he did, these numbers would not be unusual." Curiously, he charges no fees for his money-management services. Nor does he take a cut of the 1.5% fees marketers like Fairfield Greenwich charge investors each year. Why not? "We're perfectly happy to just earn commissions on the trades," he says.

Perhaps so. But consider the sheer scope of the money Madoff would appear to be leaving on the table. A typical hedge fund charges 1% of assets annually, plus 20% of profits. On a $6 billion fund generating 15% annual returns, that adds up to $240 million a year.

The lessons of Long-Term Capital Management's collapse are that investors need, or should want, transparency in their money manager's investment strategy. But Madoff's investors rave about his performance -- even though they don't understand how he does it. "Even knowledgeable people can't really tell you what he's doing," one very satisfied investor told Barron's. "People who have all the trade confirmations and statements still can't define it very well. The only thing I know is that he's often in cash" when volatility levels get extreme. This investor declined to be quoted by name. Why? Because Madoff politely requests that his investors not reveal that he runs their money.

"What Madoff told us was, 'If you invest with me, you must never tell anyone that you're invested with me. It's no one's business what goes on here,'" says an investment manager who took over a pool of assets that included an investment in a Madoff fund. "When he couldn't explain \ how they were up or down in a particular month," he added, "I pulled the money out."

For investors who aren't put off by such secrecy, it should be noted that Fairfield and Kingate Management both market funds managed by Madoff, as does Tremont Advisers , a publicly traded hedge-fund advisory firm.