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. As Bloomberg points out, 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. 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. Perhaps most notably, Bloomberg reports his perspective on "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."
Is Global Finance a Ponzi Scheme? Ask a Russian Expert
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
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.
"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.”
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.”
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.