One does not have to be a
detective, or even a financial
expert, to spot financial
institutions that may prove
insolvent, or worse, with the
passage of time. As the saying
goes, if it looks like a duck, if
it waddles like a duck and if
it quacks like a duck, it must
be a duck.
By Alex Dalmady
The financial world has been in a state of
turmoil after the recent financial and investment
scandals. The collapse of seemingly
rock-solid institutions, billion-dollar swindles
and hoaxes are everywhere. It seems there is
a new case every day.
The “talking heads” of the world have naturally
taken up on this. Calls for stricter regulation
are a constant, which is quite understandable.
Nobody likes to see “innocent”
people suffer at the hands of unscrupulous
But one has to be a realist also. These rackets
and hustles are as old as humanity itself
and have been going on since Ug sold Og the
“magic stone” that made fire. Regardless of
how much effort is put into controlling or supervising
everything, there will always be a
loophole somewhere that a rip-off artist can
wiggle himself through. There is a proverb in
Spanish “Hecha la ley, hecha la trampa” (or
Italian “fatta la legge, trovato l’inganno) which
is something like “where there’s a law, there’s
a loophole.” Scams will continue regardless of
the regulatory hurdles thrown at them. They’ll
morph or mutate, much as pathological bacteria
do when facing an antibiotic attack.
One must also face up the fact that if you
are on this planet long enough, you will become
a direct or indirect victim of one of these
frauds. Sooner or later, it will happen. It can
be from being confident, trusting, naïve,
greedy or careless. Or simply stupid. But it
will happen. We’ve all been “taken” at some
point. If not in a monetary deception, who
hasn’t been deceived by a ‘friend,” relative
or “significant other?” It’s human nature. Gall
will usually trump incredulity and skepticism.
When one thinks “he/she couldn’t have,”
well they could… and then some.
How can you protect yourself? How does
one avoid being the victim of the next
Madoff, DMG, La Vuelta, Gumi or Banco
First off, one must realize that nothing is
safe or sacred. There is a risk and margin of
error in everything, and in financial issues,
even more so. The rubber stamp of the CNV,
SEC, FDIC or an auditor or the “word” of a
friend or partner are all relative. Nothing is
safe or “sure.” Madoff duped the SEC, Enron
had its way with “Arthur Anderson,” and recently
Saytam, a large Indian company, tricked
the powerful auditing firm of
Everything is relative and everything can
be a lie. However, unless you wish to live like
a hermit there is no modern life without risks.
The goal is to assume the risks that you think
you can manage and do your best to keep
them under control. In business (and why
not?..in love also!), if you don’t bet you can’t
win and if you don’t play you can never win.
Another thing many can’t grasp is why
these scams aren’t uncovered. The truth is
that most of them are “found out” all by themselves
or when the circumstances make it
obvious. Madoff could have continued forever
had he not faced fund redemptions with
which he couldn’t comply. Pyramid schemes
collapse when they run out of marks. And it’s
not just because the participants are happy
while they are collecting profits. It’s that a
good scam is really hard to detect and almost
impossible to uncover without inside help.
Being “almost sure” is usually “not
enough.” How do you blow the whistle when
you’re “almost sure”? It’s preferable to not
get involved and the skeptic will keep it to
himself. Frankly, what does a whistle blower
have to gain? So normally he’ll back away
from the suspicious deal and leave things as
With financial institutions, it is twice as
touchy. A suspicion can be considered a “destabilizing
rumor” and on certain occasions
(though less often than one thinks), an unfounded
rumor can turn into a self-fulfilling
prophecy. Yours truly still recalls when an extract from a report
about Banco Mercantil was taken out of context and splattered
on the front page of a newspaper, generating a mini-run on the
bank. The bank survived obviously (it was structurally
sound… a fact also stated in the report), but the affair left a bad
aftertaste. The analysis was correct and the quote was word for
word, but a third party maliciously manipulated it.
Back to how to protect yourself. The best scam antidote is
common sense or what is called the “Duck Theory.” The Duck
Theory states quite simply that: if it “quacks” like a duck, if it
walks like a duck and it has a bill like a duck… IT’S A DUCK!
The only way to be 99.99% sure that it’s a duck is to extract
its DNA and analyze it and even then there is margin for error. I
respect Heisenberg; there is no absolute certainty.
So what does a financial duck look like? Its traits are many
and varied, but here are a few:
1. It’s too good (to be true)
I still recall that Gumi (a pyramid scheme in Bolivar in the
‘90s) would pay 20% monthly interest on deposits. DMG (Colombia)
offered to fully recharge members’ prepaid cards after
six months for free. Madoff didn’t make any claims, but he had
a track record of producing returns that consistently outpaced
the market, without the volatility (risk) that usually goes with it.
Banco Latino’s rates were far higher than the rest of the
banks’… and so on.
There’s usually something very attractive or juicy being offered
or else no one would get in. The catch is that it can be too
attractive. The most successful schemes, such as Madoff’s,
straddle the “limit of reasonability,” and that allows them to
survive for a long time.
2. It can do what no one else can
Finance is a lot simpler than most people are led to believe
(we analysts must appear to be important). Most things can be
explained with simple arithmetic. When the numbers or the explanations
become too complex… beware!
What was Gumi doing that enabled it to pay 20% a month?
The whispered answer was that it was financing drug traffickers.
Not true! Frankly, why would traffickers need to finance their
operations at those loan shark rates? Drug lords had the opposite
problem, tons of cash to launder. It was all a lie of course;
Gumi was a simple pyramid scheme.
Enron, in its day, was into innovative and “exotic” businesses.
They even had supposedly established a trading market for “bandwidth.”
Their financial statements were almost impossible to decipher
and there was good reason for that. They were a lie.
More recently, Madoff’s hedge funds would rack up extremely
consistent monthly gains, which were far above the market
average. It didn’t seem that strange; there are people who are
very good at the investing game. But they were a bit too large
and too consistent. Everyone gets tripped up once in a while.
Not Bernie. Quite a few people thought he operated with insider
information… and that’s why they invested with him!
3. There are few people (or only one
person) overseeing everything
It is suspected that Madoff operated alone or with a small
group of collaborators. His auditor was a personal firm that worked
out of a storefront office in New York. His multi billion-dollar
hedge fund operated on a secret floor manned by only 19 people.
In the Barings scandal (1995), trader Nick Leeson managed to
be able to execute his trades and control how and when they
were booked. He lost a billion dollars and “broke the bank”
before anyone found out. A similar story emerged in 2008, when
Jerome Kurviel lost five million euros for Société Général. The
point is that lies and secrets are best kept when few people are
4. Few incentives for whistle blowers
Madoff was a philanthropist and a NASD director. His client
list was a “who’s who” of the rich and famous. His detractors
and those who suspected his activities weren’t “kosher” were
considered envious of his success.
Who was going to uncover the mess? The SEC? Based on
what? Madoff sent all the information legally required of him
and signed by his auditor. The SEC (not unlike the Venezuelan
CNV) doesn’t conduct audits itself; it just makes sure that somebody
At one point, 22,000 people worked for Enron and they were
all really busy. But the company overvalued assets at offshore
affiliates (aside from other accounting tricks) and was one big
house of cards. Who was going to risk their job and career,
trying to discover and denounce the truth?
A case study
Thank you for bearing with me up until this point. Your patience
is about to be rewarded. Here is a case study: a duck
“possibility” or better stated, something that could be a duck.
And a “live” one, to boot.
A friend contacted me recently to ask about an offshore bank
where he had deposited part of his savings. Not a great amount
in the large scheme of things, but an important sum for him. I
promised I would take a look at the “animal.” Fortunately, there
was information about the bank on the Internet, along with its
audited financial statements.
This is a bank that operates on a small Caribbean island,
inhabited by less than 100,000 people. Roughly, a population
the size of Altagracia de Orituco.
What is being offered?
The bank offered (still offers) high interest rates on CDs. Up
until recently the rate was about 7.5% on a one-year deposit.
That compares quite favorably with 4-5% that U.S. banks were
paying in the best case scenario, and recently rates have fallen
below 3%. My friend told me that its rates had always been that
This has been an extremely successful strategy for the bank,
at least as far as deposit growth is concerned. The bank’s deposits
have grown from $624 million in 1999 to over $8.4 billion
at year-end 2008. That’s an average compound growth rate of
Now, that is unusual. Very aggressive deposit growth is usually
a “red flag” for banks. It’s difficult to invest such a deluge
of money efficiently. It also indicates that something may be
Oops… I think I saw a feather!
How does the bank operate? What does it
do with the money?
The bank operates on a quite unique business model. It basically
takes deposits from investors all around the world mainly
in the form of time deposits. But it doesn’t make loans (technically,
a depositor can take out a loan with his/her own CD as
collateral, but that’s all). It has practically no service revenue.
Only 75 people actually work for the bank on the island, but
it captures deposits through a global network of independent
affiliated “advisors” who receive a commission for delivering
deposits to the bank (a high one… 1.5% per annum).
In order to make money, the bank invests in the capital markets.
Stocks, Bonds, Hedge Funds, Precious Metals and currencies.
Those are really fascinating things that go up and down
and deliver great profits sometimes, not so much on other occasions,
and at times (not few, especially recently) go down in
value as well.
You may be inclined to say: “lots of banks do that.” Not so.
The so-called “investment banks (of which there are few left),
have several other businesses which generate revenue, such
as underwriting, mergers and acquisitions, brokerage and asset
management. Yes, they have trading divisions, but the fee-based
businesses generate a stable flow of income that (usually) allows
them to weather the ups and downs of the trading business.
Commercial or retail banks will also “invest” money as part of
their strategy. But these are usually arbitrage situations. For
example, if a bank can receive deposits from the public at 2%
and use them to buy government paper with a 4% yield and a
similar maturity, it is a low risk strategy which banks will execute
But that’s not their main business. Normally banks will pay
little, charge a lot and still have a hard time making money on
the margin. They make their profits with service charges.
Back to our bank, which according to its financial statements,
as of the end of 2007, was 42% invested in stocks, 20% in fixed
income (bonds), 25% in hedge funds and 13% in precious metals.
That is a relatively typical allocation for this bank and over
the last few years it has gone from a low of 27% in stocks (2004)
to a high of 60% in 2006. Nothing to see here, right?
How about this? The return on the portfolio over the last
years: 2003: 14.4%, 2004: 11.5%, 2005: 10.3%, 2006: 11.0%, 2007:
11.4%. Can you see a pattern emerging? One of consistency.
Considering only the stock portfolio, the returns were: 2004:
8.2%, 2005: 8.8%, 2006: 11.7%, 2007: 8.2%. Nothing out of the
Consider the returns on the S&P 500 the same years: 2004:
9%, 2005: 3%, 2006: 12.8%, 2007: 3.8% (we’ll talk about 2008
later). The bank did quite a bit better than average.
As for other categories, they report a 22% average annual
profit on their hedge funds and 12% on precious metals. Not
bad at all.
This could seem quite “normal” for someone who is not in
the investment world, but these performance figures are very,
very good. The last few years have been incredibly challenging
for investing in most of these categories. In the ´80s or ´90s,
returns of this magnitude could be considered “normal.” Since
2000, however, they are on the “limit of the credible universe.”
I really would like to know which stocks, bonds, funds and
metals these folks have invested in to achieve such returns.
Unfortunately, that is something they don’t reveal. As an
investor, I love to “toot my own horn” when I get something
right. The bank doesn’t. One could argue that their portfolio is
made up of private companies, not publicly traded ones. There
is some of that in the group of companies mentioned to be
associated with the bank, but it´s not clear if those positions
are in this portfolio. Anyway, that private equity portfolio includes
stock in a resort developer, three motion pictures, a golf
club manufacturer, a golf course, an auction house and a restaurant
in Memphis. These are small companies which could
not represent a large portion of the bank’s assets and frankly
looking at their nature, look more to be a millionaire’s “toys”
Back to our case study. Even if everything that this institution
publishes and states is 100% true (apologies to Heisenberg),
a “depositor” at this bank is effectively lending it money so the
bank can then go out and play the markets with that money (the
bank has $16 in deposits for each dollar of equity). That fact
alone is somewhat unsettling. Fortunately, the bank has consistently
achieved above-average results in all its investment categories.
That is, they have done what few (or no) others can.
What’s that? I think I heard a “quack.”
Who manages and controls this animal?
As stated above, the bank has 75 employees on the island.
But a small group manages it. There is mention of an investment
committee, but the members of the committee are not
named. A few years ago there was an actual investment manager
or VP; now the position appears to be vacant. There is one
board member, an 85-year-old cattle rancher and used car dealership
owner who has the title of “Investments,” so one can
presume that he advises some about that.
The management team and board has basically been the same
for many years. There is no mention of any special investment
technology or strategy that can account for the results obtained
so far. That is, unless you count “long-term, hands-on
and globally diversified” as a strategy and not just a catch
phrase. An $8 billion portfolio is not easy to manage, at least
not efficiently (to which the Barings and Société Général traders
Without further information, we must assume that the administrators
are extraordinary beings.
What about the stockholders? There is only one. He has the
title of Chairman of the Board and doesn’t appear to have management
responsibilities at the bank.
Auditors? Well, yes, the financial statements of the bank are
audited. The auditor is a local (island) firm. The principal is a 72-
year-old gentleman who has been auditing the bank for many
years (at least ten). PriceWaterhouseCoopers and KPMG have
offices on the island, and it is a good internal control practice to
change auditors every few years, but the bank prefers to stick
with its trusted firm.
The banking authorities which supervise the bank are those
from the island. The same island with the population similar to
Altagracia de Orituco. The bank does not take institutional
deposits or deposits from other banks. This is not necessarily a
bad thing, but corporate depositors would be expected to do
some due diligence on the bank before committing their money.
Hmm. This animal walks in a very peculiar way. Like a waddle.
So why hasn’t anyone noticed or said anything?
There isn’t really an interest in drawing attention to this case.
The depositors are not likely to suspect and much less say
anything. Does anyone really read those financial statements
that are lying around in bank offices? The local authorities
prefer to leave these people alone. If the bank goes elsewhere,
who is going to build schools and maintain the roads and gardens?
The bank plays an important social role on the island.
The depositors are people from around the world, but perhaps
not enough from one place in particular to arouse the
interest of a regulatory agency. It is out of their jurisdiction
The owner is a powerful man. A “Forbes” list billionaire. Any
unsubstantiated suspicion could have legal consequences for
the denouncer. Perhaps the nature of this beast is a “well-known
secret.” Many think it’s strange, but no one wants to say anything.
Hey… the animal has webbed feet!
IT’S A DUCK! (I presume.)
I almost forgot. The bank’s name. It’s the Stanford International
Bank, located in the paradisiacal island of Antigua in the
The name has nothing to do with Stanford University, a wellknown
U.S. learning institution. It takes its name from owner Sir
Allen Stanford, a Texan billionaire and cricket aficionado. Sir
Allen has organized cricket matches on the island with $20
million prizes for the players. The Antiguan authorities knighted
him, not her majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He was recently named
World’s Finance’s “Man of the Year” for 2008.
A little update on things also. For those who may not know,
2008 was an awful year for investing. The S&P had its worst
performance since the great depression, falling 38%. Few investment
categories weathered the storm. For stocks, corporate
bonds, commodities, currencies and/or hedge funds, it was
all pretty bad.
In a Nov. 28 note to its depositors, the Stanford International
Bank acknowledged that it had performed poorly. But just “a
little” poorly. They acknowledge a $110 million loss up until
that date (a quarter of the equity). Doing a little math, that
doesn’t mean that the bank’s investment portfolio lost money
(like almost everyone). It means that they didn’t profit enough
to get back to break even. Since the bank invests the money of
its depositors and has to pay them interest plus the commissions
to its affiliated advisors, it must earn at least 8-9% on its
investments in order to compensate these costs. The bank is
recognizing that in 2008, the year of the great crash in the markets,
it “only” made a 5-6% return on its portfolio. Quite an act
of contrition. The bank also affirms that it had no positions in
Bernie Madoff’s funds. What a relief!
Additionally, to improve the bank’s financial standing, the
bank has issued $541 million in new capital, presumably out of
Sir Allen’s bank account. This was for the peace of mind of the
bank’s over 30,000 clients. But then, the 2007 audited statements
affirm that bank had over 50,000 clients. Well, if it’s more
than 50,000, it’s more than 30,000 also, right? Or maybe a few
clients got lost.
Another little tidbit extracted from the Internet. Health Systems
Solutions (HSSO) is a small ($8 million market cap) health
technology company in which SIB reportedly has a 20% stake.
In October 2008, HSSO offered to buy another company in the
industry: Emageon Inc (EMAG) for $62 million. Emageon accepted
and the deal was to close in December after EMAG’s
stockholders approved it. SIB was supposed to fund the deal
(we’re assuming taking an equity stake, since they do not provide loans by definition). SIB did not send the money when
agreed and EMAG filed a complaint in Federal Court. The two
parties (HSSO and EMAG) later reaffirmed their merger intent
and agreed (on Dec. 29) to extend the closing deadline to Feb.
11. Because of SIB’s initial failure to fund, HSSO was required
to put up additional escrow amounts and faces additional penalties
if it fails to deliver again.
SIB’s failure to deliver those $62 million is a bit perplexing.
According to its financial statements, the bank is extremely
liquid. Even if the 2007 statements are a bit dated, at that time
there was $627 million in cash and of the $7 billion portfolio,
about 90% of the portfolio was listed at a term or one month or
less. Such liquidity is a constant in SIB’s financial statements
over the years, so we must presume that this time the deal
should close. We’ll be keeping an eye on it.
All along this taxonomical discussion, we have been saying
that the animal certainly looks like a duck. True to Heisenberg,
we must be willing to admit that it may not be a duck, if better
evidence indicates that it is not. What would be better evidence
in this case? How about a complete audit by a more
familiar name such as KPMG? Or maybe a statement by the
bank’s global custodian, a Credit Suisse or a Morgan Stanley,
affirming… “yeah these guys have $8 billion worth of securities
in custody with us.” That would be nice. A DNA test very
difficult to refute, if you will. But if it were only the animal
saying it’s not a duck… that would sound like a bunch of quack.
Summing it up, be careful. But in particular, be careful with
animals that look like ducks that say that they’re something
else. Because they could be that other something, although it’s
very likely that they are just ducks.
Disclaimer: The Stanford Group operates a commercial bank
in Venezuela. I have not analyzed this bank and am unaware of
its relationship with Stanford International Bank. Please, do not
accuse me of destabilizing the financial system.
The author is a financial analyst.