By Leonid Bershidsky
What's the difference between today's global finance system and a Ponzi scheme? This is the question that a 56-year-old veteran Russian financial scammer has been asking his victims.
Chillingly, he almost has a point.
Sergei Mavrodi is one of the most infamous names in Russia's recent history. Back in February 1994, amid the turmoil of the country's transition to a market economy, the mathematician organized a Ponzi scheme called MMM. He offered returns of 100 percent a month and advertised aggressively on national television. Before the pyramid crashed in July 1994, it attracted as many as 10 million depositors, making it more popular than the voucher privatization program that was supposed to give regular Russians a chance to take a stake in formerly state-owned enterprises.
Mavrodi managed to avoid prison for nearly a decade, in part by getting elected as a parliamentary deputy and using the status to obtain immunity from prosecution. He ultimately served out a four-and-a-half-year sentence for fraud. While in prison, Mavrodi wrote books and movie scripts, one of which -- PyraMMMid -- was later made into a successful film.
Now he's back with an even more audacious endeavor: the honest scam. Last year, he announced the new project, MMM-2011, by stating boldly that it would be another Ponzi scheme. “Even if you strictly follow all instructions, you can still lose," he wrote on a website describing the project. "Your 'winnings' may be withheld without any explanation or reason whatsoever.” Depositors would be paid solely from funds invested by other depositors. There would be no attempt to generate income in any other way. This, he said, was perfectly all right, and no different than the way some of the largest institutions in global finance operated, from the Russian pension fund to the U.S. Federal Reserve.
"What is money?" he wrote. "Nothing! Nihil. A phantom. … It is backed by nothing at all and printed by the masters in any quantity, at will.”
Such a case might have been hard to make back in 1994, when Russians saw the U.S. dollar as an unassailable store of value. But in today's post-financial-crisis world, it's easy to see how Mavrodi's arguments could convince an uninitiated observer. The U.S. is paying back its bondholders with money freshly printed by the Fed. Greece is paying back investors with money the European Union has borrowed from other investors -- or maybe some of the same investors -- via its bailout funds. The developed world's central banks have printed the equivalent of trillions of dollars in new money to keep their financial systems and economies afloat.
Mavrodi's sales pitch worked. On May 31, MMM-2011 claimed 35 million participants throughout the world. The number may be wildly inflated, but there were certainly hundreds of thousands of people in Russia, Ukraine and other post-Soviet nations who invested with Mavrodi. Their money allowed him to buy outdoor advertisements (this time avoiding TV) and open up chains of “consulting offices.”
The operation employed a structure borrowed from multi-level marketing. Early investors recruited new ones. A member who brought ten people into the fold could become a foreman and take a small cut from each investment by his “clients.” The first adopters could end up running an army of 100,000 or even a million. They offered returns from 20 percent for a one-month deposit up to 60 percent monthly for a 12-month deposit.
This time around, the mathematician was careful to mitigate the risk that he would be accused of fraud, or of operating a financial business without a license. MMM-2011 was not a legal entity. Money was moved strictly between people's private bank accounts or electronic wallets. The network made extensive use of communication technology: Potential foremen were interviewed via Skype, and each member was required to use a Gmail account.
Authorities were nonplussed. “The law enforcement agencies have a very high sensitivity threshold,” Russia's financial ombudsman Pavel Medvedev told TVRain. “They worry when someone gets killed, not when fraud is being perpetrated.” Criminal proceedings were started against Mavrodi in Novosibirsk, where he was accused of “aiding illegal enterprise,” but no move was made to arrest the MMM mastermind, who communicated with his followers only by posting videos on his website.
In Ukraine, Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov promised that the government would “check on what grounds this company started operating” and warned citizens that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” No decisive action was taken. Alexei Plotnikov, a parliamentary deputy from the ruling Regions Party, argued that action wasn't necessary: “There is a general rule that you should not stick fingers in an electrical outlet, but there will always be people who do that," he said. "It's the same with Ponzi schemes and other questionable operations. All the government should do is issue a warning.”
MMM-2011 halted payments on May 31. “Unfortunately, I have to admit that a panic has started within the System,” Mavrodi wrote, blaming the media for spreading malicious rumors. “This is a pyramid! If everyone rushes to withdraw the money, there is no way there will be enough money for everybody. In fact, it would be the same with any bank.”
Undaunted, Mavrodi launched a new pyramid, MMM-2012, saying that it would be used to prop up MMM-2011. “Don't worry, don't be nervous, we will fix everything, and you'll get paid in full,” Mavrodi wrote, adding immediately: “This is not a promise, just a feeling I have.”
Experts pointed out the difference between those who lost their money to the first MMM in 1994 and the members of Mavrodi's modernized social network. “There is a different motivation now,” psychologist Akop Narvazyan told Russia's Channel One. “This is a gamble: People hope they will be smarter, more cunning than others. This is no longer mere inexperience, it's adventure-seeking.” Yet when the pyramid collapsed, Internet forums quickly filled with desperate pleas. “Please help me withdraw my deposit of 3.8 million rubles ($112,000). Am willing to pay 30 percent. Can anyone help or is it all over?” read one post. “Guys, save me, I borrowed serious money from serious people and now my foreman won't answer!” read another. Some MMM-2011 depositors, like their predecessors in 1994, have borrowed against their apartments to invest and are now facing homelessness.
It may all be their fault. They had been warned repeatedly by various officials and by Mavrodi himself. It is, however, an interesting moral issue, if not a legal one, whether governments have any obligation to protect financial innocents from themselves. One also wonders whether the policy makers managing the world's financial system might be able to extract some lessons for themselves.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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