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Current as of 21/10/16 07:39PM NZST
A personal finance columnist for the NZ Herald

Inside Money: Financial fiction: readings from Ross and Madoff

Bernie Madoff.  Photo / AP
Bernie Madoff. Photo / AP

David Ross, New Zealand's most-famous alleged semi-ponzi scheme operator, was not on the speaker list of the recent financial literacy summit held in Auckland.

But Ross would've made a compelling headline act at the summit given his potentially unique insight into the subject.

For now, unfortunately, Ross' strategies for improving investors' financial knowledge remain unknown. The lessons to be drawn from the collapse of Ross Asset Management (RAM), however, may become clearer as criminal charges against Ross are prosecuted during the imminent court case.

In the US, meanwhile, the world's most-famous confirmed ponzi manager, Bernie Madoff, has come forward with a range of financial-improvement ideas from the comfort of his jail cell.

Madoff, speaking to US financial website Market Watch as part of its financial felons series, suggested five ways to make investment markets fairer.

His list included the point resonating now also with New Zealand investors that the US government "should have forced me to have an independent custodian".

"Client funds should be held by independent custodians. If they had, I would have been caught long ago," Madoff told Market Watch. "If I had had an inspection by the SEC, they would have looked at the custodian accounts and seen the funds on my books did not match the funds in the accounts and I would have been caught."

Whether an independent custodian would've kept RAM in check can be debated but the existence of externally-verified records would've at least made the job of the group's liquidator, PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) much easier.

PWC's third RAM report, published last week at the same time as the criminal charges against Ross were laid, does, though, clear away some of the smoke.

According to PWC, 625 of the 846 RAM investors (dating back to 2000) are out-of-pocket collectively about $107 million. A further 207 withdrew more cash from RAM than they had contributed over the years, gaining a total $48.1 million between them. The remaining 14 investors are all square with RAM.

In total, therefore, it seems about $60 million of cash has to be accounted for, a figure that differs markedly from the $454 million supposed RAM funds missing-in-action.

The larger sum, as PWC points out, includes assumed growth in the value of underlying RAM investments.

"This growth has not been included in [the PWC analysis] as it would appear a large amount is fictitious so cannot be relied on as accurate," the liquidator's report says.

There remain many plot lines for PWC to unravel in this work of fiction. For example, the IRD is considering whether RAM investors could claim refunds for real tax paid on imaginary gains.

Also, in a novel sub-text, PWC notes RAM itself may be due a tax refund for "having paid tax on the higher management fees from investors".

This has all the makings of a financial literature classic; watch out for the exciting final instalments.

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A personal finance columnist for the NZ Herald

David is a freelance journalist who has covered the financial services business on both sides of the Tasman for over 15 years. He is the editor of industry website Investment News. David has edited magazines and websites for the financial advice, investment and superannuation industries.

Read more by David Chaplin

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