John Steele Gordon: Pyramid Schemes Are as American as Apple Pie





[Mr. Gordon is the author of "An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power" (HarperCollins, 2004).]

By his own admission, Bernard Madoff has catapulted himself into the major leagues of Wall Street fraud. That is no small accomplishment, given some of the more famous frauds of the past. But a $50 billion Ponzi scheme is no small thing.

To be sure, the number of still unanswered questions is huge. How could a Ponzi scheme last as long as this one and reach so fantastic a sum? Why didn't he take the money and decamp to some extradition-free country instead of admitting the fraud and waiting for the cops to show up? And, of course, how could so many sophisticated people be fooled for so long by an operation that, at least in retrospect, had red flags all over it?

Ponzi schemes, where early investors are paid dividends out of the money put in by later investors, usually last only a few months. Charles Ponzi's eponymous scheme in 1919 started with just 16 investors and $870. Six months later, there were 20,000 investors who had put in $10,000,000. Ten million was a whole lot of money in 1919 and when it attracted attention, Ponzi soon found himself with a five-year jail term and the dubious honor of adding his name to the English language for a type of fraud he hadn't even invented.

Most Ponzi schemes are penny-ante affairs, such as chain letters, that bilk their victims out of a few dollars each. Even Charles Ponzi's investors put in an average of only $500 each. But Wall Street's most famous Ponzi scheme was, like the present one, no small affair. And its principal victim was a man few associate with Wall Street at all -- Ulysses S. Grant.

Ulysses Grant Jr., known as Buck, had been trained in the law and tried several businesses without success before coming to Wall Street. There he was befriended by Ferdinand Ward, a typical all-hat-and-no-cattle fast talker whom Grant was too naive to recognize as such. They soon formed a brokerage firm named Grant and Ward.

Ward hoped to trade on the Grant name and when Gen. Grant moved to New York in 1881, four years after serving as president, he came into the firm as a limited partner, investing $200,000, virtually his entire net worth. Many people, hoping to profit by a connection with the former president's access to power in Washington, opened accounts with the firm.

When Ward attempted to borrow money from the Marine National Bank, its president, James D. Fish, wrote Grant, who, as naive as his son, replied "I think the investments are safe, and I am willing that Mr. Ward should derive what profit he can for the firm that the use of my name and influence may bring." Grant meant it only in a general sense, but Fish thought the fix was in on government contracts going to companies that Ward said he controlled.

But Grant, as honest as he was foolish about business matters, had flatly refused to lobby for government contracts. So Ward just lied and solicited investments from Grant's friends and well-wishers, promising large dividends to come from lucrative government contracts with the firms he was investing in. He then took the money and speculated with it. He kept the promised large dividends flowing by paying them out of the money new investors put in.

It worked for awhile and, with the help of thoroughly cooked books, Grant and his son thought they were both seriously rich, worth $2 million and $1 million respectively. Grant began to go downtown regularly to the Grant and Ward offices, where he would greet new investors, who were suitably impressed to meet him. He didn't have a clue what was really going on....



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