The Awesome, Mind-Boggling Tale of Sam Israel and the Shadow Markets

Tim Knight from Slope of Hope's picture

I just finished reading Octopus by Guy Lawson, and it's one of those rare books that fit the "I Couldn't Put It Down" category, much like Den of Thieves, published in 1992. It is the tale of Sam Israel, whom you may remember in 2006 was on the lam from his failed hedge fund/Ponzi scheme. He faked his suicide, was captured, and is now hanging out for the next couple of decades (with none other than Bernie Madoff) in a state prison named, of all things, Valhalla.

Israel was born into a very wealthy family that made its fortune in commodities trading. Even as a young
0822-israelOctopus man, he wanted to be a successful trader on Wall Street and impress his hard-to-please father that he could truly make it in the brutal world of trading.

He began work in the 1980s, working at the bottom of the totem pole at the New York Stock Exchange. He did whatever menial tasks were available, serving as a "runner" and gopher, and the book details his climb up through the trading ranks - - by 1987, serving as a trader for a relatively prominent firm (which was badly damaged in the 1987 crash). Israel actually did quite well during the crash, and after working for a couple of other funds in the ensuing years, he decided to create a fund of his own with two other men - - one of them, Jimmy Marquez, who himself had launched a fund whose losses were so severe that he had to shut it down, and another, Dan Marino, a chubby, almost-deaf accountant who was there to keep (and, later, cook) the books.

Israel was, in a way, ahead of the curve since he wanted to base his orders on a very primitive (and today what would be considered ungodly slow) version of high-speed trading. His "Forward Propogation" program would predict the next move of the market with 86% accuracy, he claimed, and for virtually the entire history of the newly-christened Bayou fund, Forward Propogation was the centerpiece of their technological edge in the markets.

At first, the fund was off to a good start. In a few months, Bayou had a nice profit to show to their partners (who, at the time, were just a few friends and family, thus yielding a tiny fund of not even a million dollars). Marquez believed a major bull market in gold was forthcoming, so he went heavily long into precious metals. Although Marquez was absolutely right, he was far too early, and what had been a gain turned into a loss. The fund was off to a terrible start, and the three partners were certain their investors would simply leave, thus snuffing out their new business.

 This left the partners in a very discouraging position, but Marino hit upon an idea: when the business was initially set up, they created two organizations: one of them the fund itself, and the other, the brokerage through which the fund would trade. Marino proposed that they issue a substantial commission "rebate" to the fund. It would create a substantial loss for the brokerage, but since Israel was its only owner, no one would really care. The Bayou fund partners would see a profit instead of a loss, and the line item was plausible enough that it would pass muster with the auditors. The other two partners reluctantly agreed that this was the only easy way out of their predicament.

Thus, instead of reporting to their partners a loss of 14%, they proudly issued reports showing a 40% gain. At this point of the book, two themes in the fund's future are already clear: one, the partners were willing to fudge the numbers to hide anything they considered embarassing, and two, when they lied, they lied big. They could have entered a much smaller "rebate", nudging the loss slightly into profitable territory, so at least the partners wouldn't have outright bad news. Instead, they had to create a ridiculous profitable result with the hope of generating interest from new investors.

One aspect of the story that the author makes very clear is that, unlike Madoff, the creators of Bayou didn't set out to set up a Ponzi scheme. On the contrary, they genuinely thought they could beat the market, and they sought to create outsized returns for their investors. For the entire history of the fund, Israel traded, and traded, and traded, employing increasingly bizarre and aggressive techniques to try to address what the partners called simply The Problem; that is, the difference between reality (the cash in the Bayou accounts) and fantasy (the sum total of balances all the partners supposedly held). 

The scheme began, as many crimes like this do, quite "innocently". The men were simply too embarassed to admit a loss to their partners, so they concocted a way to hide what, in retrospect, was a pretty small amount of absolute dollars in losses. Instead of simply stating the facts and assuring they would try harder, they had to present themselves as widly successful in their endeavor and, in their own minds, pledge that they would make up for the difference by their soon-to-be-realized success in trading. Thus, The Problem grew over time from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands to millions to, ultimately, hundreds of millions.

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In 1998, the men took a couple of steps to make the company seem more "real." First, at Marquez's urging, they moved from Israel's home basement to a fancy office on "Hedge Fund Row" in Stamford, Connecticut. Although the expensive office was a stretch for a fund just starting out, they wanted to give a larger-than-life impression.

Also, once they realized The Problem was getting too big to pass muster with their auditors, they decided to simply make their own auditing firm, run by Marino from a spare desk in the Manhattan office of a friend. Marino came up with a name, business cards, stationary - - everything they needed to make it seem like a separate organization was carefully examining and approving Bayou's statements.

The line item on the statements that, in a stroke, resolved all the losses and falsified profits of the firm was called Due From Brokers. This imaginary asset was, incredibly, never questioned by any partner or prospective investor. The impressive returns that Bayou was creating month after month managed to prove that, by and large, greed beats prudence with most folks. Due From Brokers was an ever-growing accounting bucket that balanced the books neatly for all concerned.

 New investors started to come in at a steady pace, and by 2000, the fund was about $10 million. Israel actually played the bursting of the NASDAQ bubble quite well, and although The Problem was larger than ever, it was still plausible that superb trading could bridge the gap between reality and pretend.

On September 10, 2001, Israel's computer program did something it had never done before - - all ten indicators pointed in the same direction: green. That is, go long, and go long in a big way. Sam did just that, loading up on futures, options, and stocks, all predicated on the forthcoming rally that would save him from the deep hole Bayou was in.

What happened the next morning changed all of that. When the market finally opened the next week, Bayou took devastating losses, making the hole that much deeper. Of course, the letter Bayou sent to its partners solemnly stated that while the profit had been reduced, the year was nonetheless still profitable - - an incredible (and completely untrue) feat.

The money kept tumbling in from new investors, and by the end of 2001, Bayou claimed $85 million in assets. This was an inflated figure, of course, since it counted both dreamed-up profits and masked losses, but there's no doubt the fund was getting popular momentum.

Things were going less well in Israel's personal life. His wife kicked him out of the house (they had a couple of kids by then), and Israel decided to live the life of a hedge fund bachelor, renting a $22,000/month mansion owned by Donald Trump in Mount Kisco, New York. As with the Stamford office, Israel figured this would a sensible way to dazzle potential investors.

Because The Problem had become so large, Bayou started making much riskier investments in the hope that they would jettison the firm back to true profitability. Bayou started acting more like a venture capital firm than an equity hedge fund, plowing $50 million into various startups, none of which ever paid off.

On the last day of 2003, the Forward Propogation program again signaled (for only the second time) an "all clear" to go long the market in a big way, with all ten signals flashing green. Israel backed up the truck once more. Although no terrorist attack took place like last time, the market still moved against him, and $20 million of (additional) losses later, he closed those positions too.

It was around then that Israel encountered Jack O'Halloran (whom you may remember as the mute character Non from the Superman movies).  This part of Octopus is probably the most enjoyable, because O'Halloran tells Israel stories, plots, and conspiracies that are incredible in the truest sense of the word (several of which involve the Kennedy assasination). Through O'Halloran, Israel is introduced to the man who dominates the second half of the book, Robert Booth Nichols.

No description I lay out here would do justice to Nichols, but I'll summarize by saying he is a mix between Chuck Norris, Rambo, and James Bond. He was a real-life spy and mercenary and, unknown to Israel, a world-class con artist. His ability to con put to shame anything a poser like Bernie Madoff or Sam Israel could concoct. He executed what is known in the underworld as "the long con" - - the creation of a completely separate reality, utterly convincing and singularly devoted to separating the mark (Sam Israel) from his money (the entire Bayou account). The movie Matchstick Men, which is superb, illustrates a long con beautifully.

Nichols spent weeks telling Israel how the world really worked. All the conspiracy theories were true. Thirteen families ran the planet. The governments, the Fed, all the politicians - - they were merely a front for the DeBeers and the Rothschilds and the other multi-billionaires that owned and ran everything. This played beautifully into Israel's distorted and paranoid view of the world. For someone who had been so prone to cheating, the idea that everything in the world was just one big cheat surely must have been comforting.

The real news for Israel, as Nichols laid it out, was that there was a shadow market that traded the money of the super-wealthy and produced returns that were astonomical. Risk-free trades would throw off 100% gains in just a couple of weeks, and of course, by repeating these trades, there really was no limit to how many billions one could garner in profits. The Problem, in comparison to the opportunity presented, was miniscule. Israel was convinced that he would not only turn Bayou around, but that he would shut his piddling fund down soon thereafter and amass the countless billions that such a brilliant trader deserved.

To help allay whatever smidgen of guilt Israel might have been able to conjure up, Nichols also made it clear that the super-wealthy of the world allocated about half of their astronomical profits to good works, such as seeking a cure for AIDS and providing clean drinking water to the poor (yes, it sounds laughable to read it here, but once Israel was deep into the upside-down world of Nichols, anything seemed possible). So Israel was not only destined to become one of the world's richest men, he would also cure AIDS and save the wretched masses at the same time.

Of course, once the $150 million in Bayou's account was transferred to London, "the trade" never seemed to materialize. No, Nichols didn't simply run off with the money; that would be too easy, and the account was strictly under the control of Israel. This long con would take a lot more work that that. But Nichols and his confederates spent months adding more details, color, and credibility to their plot.

Yet as anxious as Israel was to place his first trade, there was always an excuse as to why it wasn't happening yet, often involving ridiculous excuses like not being able to find the bonds whose serial numbers matched properly.

Nichols then gave Israel a history lesson about Yamashita's gold (a legend with which I wasn't familiar until I read this book). This was just one of many gold mines that Nichols claimed could be "re-hypothecated" (shades of Corzine!) and was valued always at some ludicrous sum, such as $156 billion.

Shockingly, Israel also trained under Nichols to become a violent killer, learning how to - as Israel reports it - rip out throats and gouge out eyeballs. At the height of the long con, Nichols even synthesized an attempt on Israel's life, which Israel was able to foil (as was the plan) with a pistol he carried with him at all times. In Israel's own recollection:

"So I walked over and stood over him and shot him in the head. Point blank. Killing him. His head exploded all over the sidewalk. Blood and brains were everywhere."

To me, it was breathtaking to read how one relatively normal person had become a murderer (and would recall the incident with such detachment). It's pretty evident that Sam Israel had deeper mental issues than simply being a liar and thief. He was also a fool, though, because in all probability, the gun they provided him was filled with blanks, and the "exploding head" (conveniently) was of a man wearing a turban rigged to realistically explode as if it had been shot. From that point on, the bond between Nichols and Israel made them inseparable.

It was at this time that Nichols asked for a $10 million "loan" from Israel, ostensibly for some important personal opportunities. Nichols even provided $100 million in collaterial as security. What was the collateral, you ask? Why, a box of bonds from the Yamashita Gold hoard, secured in a box which, if opened incorrectly, would spray a deadly nerve agent, killing everyone present. Yes, you read that correctly, and Israel believed it, straight up and down. He wired the $10,000,000 to his friend.

A little later, when Israel went to his bank to withdraw a few thousand dollars from the Bayou account, the teller told him the balance was $0. The night before, the entire sum had been wired to a confederate of Nichols', and it was simply by chance that Israel's attempt at a small withdrawal brought it to his attention. The bank was able to undo the wire just in time, although Israel had no idea of the connection, if any, between the person who sucked the account dry and his new best friend, Mr. Nichols.

Back in the U.S., Israel got a visit from the FBI. It probably won't surprise you to read that the FBI wasn't there to expose the scam - - heavens, no, that would imply competency. They were there since they were concerned - - based on what happened with the wire in Europe - - that Mr. Israel might be victim to a scam (yes, the irony is delicious).

Incredibly, Israel sat with the two FBI agents in his giant rented mansion and explained the lunatic tale of the shadow markets, the 13 families that controlled the Earth, and all the other hare-brained nonsense that Nichols had fed him. The agents were puzzled, to say the least, but still felt a need to try to protect Israel from any unsavory characters that might be out ot get him. Their boss, upon later being told the same stories by Israel, was skeptical of who this kook was and what he was up to.

As Israel's behavior became increasingly bizarre, his partners started to send in redemption requests. By taking $50 million from the $150 million account (in which no trades in the Shadow Market had taken place, naturally), Bayou was able to cover the redemptions, but it was clear that time was running out, and Israel was getting frantic to make his promised billions and move on with his life. By 2004, after all, Bayou had in actuality lost $75 million of investor money, in addition to claiming $175 million in extra profits that weren't real. A quarter-billion dollar shortfall isn't easy to make up with a $150 million fund.

As Israel got more and more desperate, he started partaking in absolutely lunatic schemes, no more plausible than the Nigerian scams that appear in your email inbox from time to time (and this is not an exageration, because he would wire hundreds of thousands of dollars to lawyers that pledged a vast fortune was coming from places such as Nigeria, once they had the initial deposit in hand).

Amazingly, the government employee who actually figured out something was wrong wasn't from the SEC (easily Earth's most incompetent body) or the FBI. It was a fellow named Cameron Holmes, who worked in the Financial Remedies section of the Arizona Attorney General's office. He got a suspicious activity report of a $100 million wire that had been sent to a suburban branch of Wachovia bank. (Israel had grown tired waiting for the Shadow Market trades, so he repatriated the money).

After a little digging, Holmes grew confident that a scam was afoot, so he had the money frozen at Wachovia. It was around this time that Bayou's largest investors were demanding their money back. To buy a few weeks, Israel made an announcement that the fund was shutting down. Part of his letter to clients read,

"It is with great regret, but with an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment in a job done to the best of our abilities, that I announce the closing of the Bayou Family of Funds at the end of July 2005."

Israel still held out hope that in the few weeks they required to "close the books" and cut the checks, some kind of miracle would take place.

Of course, no miracle took place. When a partner received his $52 million check, and it bounced, he made a trip to the Bayou office and found it deserted. He did find a draft of a suicide note that read, "I know God will have no mercy on my soul." He probably concluded at that point that the bounced checked wasn't a mistake.

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The principals at Bayou were sentenced to twenty years each. Israel was granted a few weeks before commencing his sentence. He took the opportunity to fake his suicide and try to start a new, anonymous life. He got away with it for a couple of weeks, but after a (real) subsequent suicide attempt on his part, which failed, he turned himself in to the authories and gave up the chase. Another two years was tacked on to his sentence.

I think I've done a good job capturing the essence of the book, which I frankly think would make an amazing movie. Get it and read it; you'll probably agree with me that it's an awesome tale.