Category Archives: Economy

Another LDS-related “affinity fraud” case

I’ve posted a few times before (here and here) about “affinity fraud” cases involving Latter-day Saints, that is, financial fraud cases that in part prey upon Mormons via their religion, much as Bernie Madoff’s frauds preyed heavily upon Jews and Jewish organizations.

Well, another example has cropped up:

Like those caught up in other get-rich scams — from Bernard Madoff’s $65 billion Ponzi scheme, which initially snared wealthy Jews, to an alleged $4.4 million fraud aimed at deaf people — Tri Energy’s investors had something in common. Many were Mormons and born-again Christians who shared dreams and prayers on nightly conference calls. They vowed to use the profits for charitable works and kept raising funds, at times taking out second mortgages, draining retirement accounts and recruiting relatives.

What’s interesting is that the people perpetrating the fraud aren’t LDS themselves — they’re just taking advantage of them:

Jones, Jennings and Simburg, none of whom is a Mormon, exploited this vulnerability for at least four years, offering a cocktail of spirituality, exclusivity and the promise of high returns.

“The guys who did this were geniuses in a way,” says Dana Carney, an assistant professor of management at the Columbia University Graduate School of Business in New York, who has written about investor psychology. “This has the flavor of a cult. They hit all these vulnerabilities. There was religion; we trust like people, especially religiously like people. With the nightly calls, there was an illusion of transparency. They took advantage of the sunk-costs phenomenon: The more people invest in something, the more connected they feel.”

Be sure to read the whole thing.  ..bruce..

Madoff syndrome strikes California Mormons

Comes this news from California:

FOLSOM, CA – A Folsom investment firm that allegedly ran a $40 million Ponzi scheme drew largely from members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, according to federal investigators.

Equity Investment Management and Trading, Inc. was headed up by Anthony Vassallo, 29. A professional networking Web site indicates Vassallo attended Brigham Young University between 1998 and 2003.

The alleged Ponzi scheme came to light Wednesday when the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil complaint in Sacramento federal court seeking to seize assets held by EIMT and levy fines against Vassallo and company vice president Kenneth Kenitzer, 66, of Pleasanton.

The complaint claims as many as 150 victims, drawn largely from Vassallo’s religious community, invested $40 million between May 2004 and November 2008.

One on those alleged victims is Kevin Stillion, 38, of Rancho Murieta, who said he gave Vassallo his life savings of $120,000 to invest in April of 2008.

“We know that we do have an account that does have some money in it, but it’s less than two percent or one percent,” Stillion said.

Here’s the corresponding press release from the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

Much has been written about Utah being the fraud capital of the US, though I suspect the various post-collapse frauds that are coming out (starting with Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, but certainly not ending there) make anything done in Utah look penny-ante. But there is a confluence between two pervasive concepts in Mormon society that feeds into such fraud:

  • I can trust fellow Mormons professionally
  • God will bless me financially if I pay my tithing, etc.

Contrary to what we may think, this is not unique to LDS society. Part of what has come out in the wake of the Madoff scandal is how many of his victims were Jews and Jewish organizations that felt they could trust Madoff because he was Jewish. As one of the earliest AP reports noted:

Investors big and small were swindled, from Florida retirees to celebrities such as Steven Spielberg, actor Kevin Bacon and Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax. Many of Madoff’s victims were Jews and Jewish charities, which trusted him because he is Jewish. Those cheated included Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel.

But back to the Vassallo scheme. Here’s what should have sent big warning bells off for anyone, LDS or not, who was considering investing (emphasis mine):

Investigators said investors were lured with the promise of monthly returns as great as 3.5 percent.

This is exactly the same thing that Madoff used to get his investors, though his standard pitch was a mere 1 percent/month (the FBI does say he did make some claims of annual returns approaching 45 percent, but the 1%/month figure shows up most often). That claim alone should have been enough to warn people away, particularly in an era where you’re lucky if your money market account offers a 3.5% annual return on saving.

But here’s the real kicker (again, emphasis mine):

Stillian [one of the victims] said he is not a member of the LDS church, but has Mormon friends who introduced him to Vassallo. “It was all about friends and family and trust,” he said, adding, “I sat there in his office and he showed me the returns,” Stillian said.

Dating all the way back to my undergrad years at BYU, I have made it a matter of standing policy that whenver anyone tries to get money from me (selling me something, investing, etc.) and brings the Church or related issues into it, my response is an automatic and irrevocable “No.” Any appeal to Church membership, Church authorities, personal claimed worthiness (“When I was in the temple the other day…”), etc., is a big red flag that the pitch being made cannot stand on its own merits.

The sad thing is that most Mormons are honest in their dealings with others, including their fellow Mormons. Tthat’s what makes the occasional fraud like this both effective and devestating. Those who take advantage of that trust are truly wolves in sheep’s clothing. Like the moneychangers in at the temple in Jerusalem, they turn the house of God into a den of thieves — but, unlike the moneychangers, they do so having sworn a solemn oath to take Christ’s name upon themselves.  I for one would not want to be in their shoes when they face the Savior’s wrath.  ..bruce..

The more things change…

I am currently re-reading Nibley’s The Ancient State, largely because of some novels I’m writing. This morning, I was just finishing up “The Hierocentric State” (published 1951) and found the following passage from the last paragraph strangely reminiscent of the current cult of personality on the Left (and I speak as a former lifelong Democrat):

Men seem unable to leave the dream of the hierocentric state alone. To recapitulate the sections given above, we cannot blame people if they yearn for (1) the grandeur, color, and unity of the great assembly, (2) the lofty and uncompromising certainty of universal kingship, (3) the sense of refuge and well-being in the holy shrine, (4) the high and independent life of a chivalrous aristocracy, (5) the luxury of hating all opposition with a holy hatred, and (6) the sheer authority of the institutions established and maintained by force.

Having finished that essay, I started on “Sparsiones” (published in 1945) and read the following, which called to mind the current insanity surrounding financial bailouts:

The Roman practice, best described as sparsio, of bestowing public donatives by throwing things among the multitude to be scrambled for in scenes of wild disorder has never received the attention which its strangeness solicits and its significance for the study of Roman politics and economics deserves.

A little later on, I ran into this passage from the same article:

It is impossible indeed to conceive of a system less compatible to the good order of the [Roman] Republic, or more plainly and fatally designed to beget corruption in it, than that of of the Roman collections and distributions, or any more blatant offense to every idea of order and decorum (so dear to the Republic) than a public scamble.

Food for thought.

The self-destruction of Wall Street

[cross-posted from And Still I Persist]

Michael Lewis — who wrote Liar’s Poker back in 1989 — gives a fascinating, detailed chronicle of just how Wall Street managed to cause the current financial maelstrom that’s hurting all of us these days. Much of the article focuses on Steve Eisman, who kept asking uncomfortable questions until he figured out just how screwed up the entire subprime financial market was. He kept trying to make people understand just how bad things were going to be come, but was largely ignored. He then started shorting the subprime market, that is, investing in such a way that he would get a return only if the market went bad:

And short Eisman did—then he tried to get his mind around what he’d just done so he could do it better. He’d call over to a big firm and ask for a list of mortgage bonds from all over the country. The juiciest shorts—the bonds ultimately backed by the mortgages most likely to default—had several characteristics. They’d be in what Wall Street people were now calling the sand states: Arizona, California, Florida, Nevada. The loans would have been made by one of the more dubious mortgage lenders; Long Beach Financial, wholly owned by Washington Mutual, was a great example. Long Beach Financial was moving money out the door as fast as it could, few questions asked, in loans built to self-destruct. It specialized in asking home­owners with bad credit and no proof of income to put no money down and defer interest payments for as long as possible. In Bakersfield, California, a Mexican strawberry picker with an income of $14,000 and no English was lent every penny he needed to buy a house for $720,000.

More generally, the subprime market tapped a tranche of the American public that did not typically have anything to do with Wall Street. Lenders were making loans to people who, based on their credit ratings, were less creditworthy than 71 percent of the population. Eisman knew some of these people. One day, his housekeeper, a South American woman, told him that she was planning to buy a townhouse in Queens. “The price was absurd, and they were giving her a low-down-payment option-ARM,” says Eisman, who talked her into taking out a conventional fixed-rate mortgage. Next, the baby nurse he’d hired back in 1997 to take care of his newborn twin daughters phoned him. “She was this lovely woman from Jamaica,” he says. “One day she calls me and says she and her sister own five townhouses in Queens. I said, ‘How did that happen?’?” It happened because after they bought the first one and its value rose, the lenders came and suggested they refinance and take out $250,000, which they used to buy another one. Then the price of that one rose too, and they repeated the experiment. “By the time they were done,” Eisman says, “they owned five of them, the market was falling, and they couldn’t make any of the payments.”

It’s a long article, but it is very much worth reading all the way through. However, if you don’t have the patience, though, I once again recommend this stick-figure presentation, whcih is a remarkable accurate and succinct, if somewhat…ah…pungent summary of just what went wrong. ..bruce..

The tragedy of Iceland

[Adapted from a post over at my other blog, And Still I Persist]

I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for Iceland ever since a friend of mine, Joe Holt, served a mission there some decades back. It has long been high on my list of countries that I’d like to visit, and, of course, the Church has pioneer roots going back to Iceland as well.

My co-blogger at And Still I Persist, Bruce Henderson, has spent two years now warning about the stupidities of our domestic (US) economy, based in large part on his nation-wide gathering and analysis of real-estate data on a daily basis. Unfortunately for all of us, he turned out to be pretty much dead on, and we’ve got a major recession staring us in the face, compounded by the lurching about by the US Treasury Secretary. It’s not going to be pretty for the next year or two.

However bad we may have it here in the US, however, it doesn’t begin to compare with what Iceland is facing. There, a set of high-flying (figuratively and literally) financial leaders have bankrupted an entire nation.

Here’s a lengthy discussion in the Financial Times that makes for sobering reading:

Picture a pig trying to balance on a mouse’s back and you’ll get some idea of the scale of the problem. In a mere seven years since bank deregulation and privatisation, Iceland’s financial institutions had managed to rack up $75bn of foreign debt. In his address to the nation, Haarde put the problem in perspective by referring to the $700bn financial rescue package in America: “The huge measures introduced by the US authorities to rescue their banking system represent just under 5 per cent of the US GDP. The total economic debt of the Icelandic banks, however, is many times the GDP of Iceland.”

And here is the nub. Iceland’s banks borrowed more than $250,000 for every man, woman and child in Iceland, and placed an impossible burden on the modest reserves of the central bank in the event of default. And default they have.

Voices of caution – there were many in Iceland – were drowned out by a media that became fixated on the nation’s emergence from drab pupa to gaudy butterfly. Yet, Icelanders’ opinions were divided. For some, the success of their Viking Raiders, buying up the British high street, one even acquiring that most treasured bauble of all, a Premier League football club, marked the arrival of a golden era. The transformation of Reykjavik from a quiet, provincial fishing port to a brash financial centre had been as swift as it was complete, and with the musicians Bjork and Sigur Ros and Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Eliasson attracting global audiences, cultural prestige went hand in hand with financial success. Icelanders could hold their heads high before the rest of the world.

Hallgrimur Helgason, well-known for his novel 101 Reykjavik, said in a letter to the nation in a Sunday newspaper on October 26: “Deep down inside we idolised these titans, these money pop-stars. Awestruck we watched their adventures and admired them when they supported the arts and charities. We never had clever businessmen, not for a thousand years, not to mention men who had won battles in other countries…”

For others, the growth was too rapid, the change too extreme. Many became uncomfortable with the excesses of the Viking Raiders. The liveried private jets, the Elton John parties, the residences in St Moritz, New York and London and the yachts in St Tropez – all flaunted in Sed og Heyrt, Iceland’s equivalent of Hello! magazine – were not, and this is important, they were not Icelandic. There was a strong undertow of public opinion that felt that all this ostentatious celebration of lavish lifestyles and excess was causing the nation to disconnect from its thousand-year heritage. In his letter to the nation, Hallgrimur continued: “This was all about the building of personal image rather than the building of anything tangible for the good of our nation and its people. Icelanders living abroad failed to recognise their own country when they came home.”

What international sympathy there was for Iceland’s plight evaporated with the dark realisation that the downfall of Iceland’s three main banks – Landsbanki, Kaupthing and Glitnir – brought with it the potential loss of £8bn for half a million savers in northern Europe, the bulk of whom were British. The shrill media response in the UK was reported extensively in Iceland. The British government’s use of anti-terror legislation to freeze the assets of Landsbanki pushed Iceland’s banking system into the abyss. It was a move viewed in Iceland as hateful and unnecessary. A few days later the one remaining viable bank, Kaupthing, went under.

Be sure to read the whole thing, including the follow-up piece below in the initial article.  Hat tip to Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit.  ..bruce w..