Ponzi schemes and fools' gold


As published in Hawke's Bay Today. Canny View by Nick Stewart, Authorised Financial Adviser.

You've probably heard the saying "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." This rings particularly true in the case of Ponzi schemes.

A Ponzi scheme is not a new wonder drug or an Italian beach resort, it's terrible for your financial health.

Named after 1920s Italian schemester Charles Ponzi, a Ponzi scheme is a fraudulent investment operation where the operator generates returns for the older investors through revenue paid by new investors, as opposed to a legitimate investment scheme with business activities or profits from financial trading.

Ponzi schemes are alarmingly common, both globally and here in New Zealand.

There wouldn't be a quarter that goes by, either here or in Australia, without a prosecution for a newly discovered Ponzi scheme.

Just recently a suspected Ponzi scheme was discovered in Australia, dubbed the Pilbara Ponzi scheme, to the tune of A$120 million ($132m).

And in New Zealand it was only on September 6 that an Auckland man admitted running a $5.4 million Ponzi scheme.

Closer to home, in 2009, we have Warren Pickett - the man who ripped off a town.

Pickett ran a $20 million Ponzi scheme in the small Central Hawke's Bay community of Waipawa.

These operators typically hook in new investors by offering an "exclusive club", promising consistent short-term returns that are abnormally higher than prevailing market returns.

Such promises are attractive, but they are fools' gold.

The schemes are generally characterised by non-existent or opaque reporting and regulatory documents.

For example, the well-known Ross Asset Management scheme's reporting function consisted of an Excel spreadsheet and a heavily pixellated logo of a ram.

That scheme was $440 million at its peak.

Further afield, one of the largest Ponzi schemes in the world belonged to the now infamous Bernie Madoff of the US.

Again, the reporting was an Excel spreadsheet with a pixellated logo. That scheme was estimated at US$64.8 billion ($93b).

To put that in perspective with Ross Asset Management, as a percentage of GDP our Ross Asset Management scheme was 3.1 times larger than Bernie Madoff's scheme.

In the case of the recent prosecutions in New Zealand, the scheme operators were not on the Government's register of financial advisers.

New Zealand is not immune from financial fraud at a national or global level, as has been evidenced by these cases.

Our incidence of Ponzi schemes is somewhere in the vicinity of one a quarter.

For a significant number of investors, they are in their mid-50s or 60s when they are caught up in a Ponzi scheme.

There is no second chance because they are nearing the end of their working life, and it has a significant impact on their financial wellbeing.

The implications can be harsh.

So the message to would-be investors is simple - do your homework, seek independent advice and if it seems too good to be true, it likely is.

It's also important to check that your assets are firewalled from the operator.

The easiest way to do so is by utilising an independent custodial service.

For as little as a few cents per thousand dollars, the investments are firewalled from the adviser or fund manager and the assets are held for the sole benefit of the underlying owner.

Finally, choosing an independently assessed firm, such as a CEFEX-licensed adviser, can provide peace of mind.

An independent global assessment, CEFEX certification helps determine the trustworthiness of investment fiduciaries (investment advisory firms) and is regarded as a global standard of excellence.

• Nick Stewart is an authorised financial adviser and executive director of Stewart Financial Group. Stewart Group is a Hawke's Bay-owned and operated independent financial planning firm based in Hastings. Stewart Group has been CEFE-certified since 2015 and bound to follow the industry's best practices. The advice given here is general and does not constitute specific advice to any person.

• The views expressed in this article are those of Stewart Financial Group Ltd. The disclosure statement for Stewart Group is available free of charge by contacting us on 0800 878 961.  This article contains class advice only and does not consider objectives or situation of any particular investor. It should not be construed as a solicitation to buy or sell any financial product, or to engage in or refrain from engaging in any transaction.  We recommend that you consider the appropriateness of information to your situation.