Grow Rs 5000 to Rs 3.4 crore in a year – Is MMM the biggest Ponzi scheme ever?

mavrodi
Vivek Kaul 
Charles Ponzi, the man on whom Ponzi schemes have been named, has been dead for more than sixty years. And after all these years, it looks like that the world may have finally found a successor to Ponzi. His name is Sergei Mavrodi (featured above) and he is a Russian.
But before he get to Mavrodi, lets first try and understand what a Ponzi scheme is.
Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant into the United States, promised investors in the city of Boston that he would double their money (i.e. give them a 100% return on their investment) in 90 days.
Ponzi had hoped that to make this money through a huge arbitrage opportunity that he had spotted among the international postal reply coupons being sold across different countries. But due to various reasons both bureaucratic as well as practical, he could never get around to execution.
But by the time Ponzi realised this, big money was coming into his scheme and he had got used to a good lifestyle. At its peak, the scheme had 40,000 investors who had invested around $ 15 million in the scheme.
Ponzi kept his investors happy by using money brought in by the new investors to pay off the old investors who wanted to redeem their investment. And that is how the scheme operated upto a point. On 26th July 1920, the Boston Post ran a story questioning the legitimacy of the scheme. Within a few hours, angry depositors lined up at Ponzi’s door, demanding their money back. Ponzi asked his staff to settle their obligations. The anger subsided, but not for long. On Aug 10th, 1920, the scheme collapsed. The auditors, the newspapers and the banks declared that Ponzi was definitely bankrupt.
Ponzi was not the first person use this trick of using money being brought in new investors to pay off old investors. Neither was he the last.
Ponzi promised a 100% return to his investors in 90 days. But Sergei Mavrodi has managed to do evern better than Ponzi. His scheme MMM India (where MMM stands for Mavrodi Mondial Moneybox) is telling investors that their deposits will grow at 100% per month. Yes, dear reader, you read it right, 100% per month.
In fact as the following table on the webiste www.MMMindia.in shows, an investment of Rs 5000 made on April 15, 2013, is likely to grow to nearly Rs 3.4 crore in a year’s time. (You can check out the link here and even put in different amounts to see how much would it grow to at the rate of return of 100% per month).  
Sum of deposit:   Rs 5000

  100%
Today:

15 April 2013

5 000.00
 

15 May 2013

11 003.04
 

15 June 2013

22 553.19
After 3 months

15 July 2013

44 042.55
 

15 August 2013

101 717.32
 

15 September 2013

198 693.00
After 6 months

15 October 2013

437 401.20
 

15 November 2013

896 230.98
 

15 December 2013

1 750 607.86
 

15 January 2014

3 853 784.10
 

15 February 2014

7 896 443.57
 

15 March 2014

15 424 270.12
After 12 months

15 April 2014

33 954 877.55

 
Mavrodi brought MMM to India in 2011. The way it operates is very simple. The system is constructed around two concepts, give help and get help. So an individual logs on to the website www.mmmindia.in. Here he can help someone. To do this he needs to transfer money. This can be done through online banking, NEFT or even a direct cash deposit.
This amount is treated as a deposit in terms of a currency called Mavros, which is a virtual currency, whose exchange rate is decided personally by Mavrodi, twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This deposit in Mavros is supposed to grow at the rate of 100% per month.
Now if someone wants to sell these Mavros he needs to press the get help button. As the MMMIndia website points out “
First the system calculates the amount of requests for payments (GET HELP button). And then, as per these calculations it will send request for transfers randomly to the participants (GIVE HELP button). Not necessarily, a request for transfer may or may not occur within a month.”
This basically means a couple of things. First you can get into the scheme anytime you want, but you can’t get out anytime you want. The second point is even more interesting. In order to get out of the scheme it is necessary that other people are willing to get into the Give Help mode. This means that they should be willing to transfer money from their account to your bank account.
This is like a classic Ponzi scheme where money being brought in by the newer investors (or more money being brought in by the older investors) is used to pay off those who want to exit the scheme.
In fact MMM India clearly shows on its website the structure of the way it operates.
This clearly tells you that pyramid structure that the scheme has. Also the scheme has no ‘supposed’ business model per se like a lot of other Ponzi schemes tend to have. In fact the website clearly points out “Do not forget this! There are no investments! No business activity! There is no company! There are no shares transactions, any relationship with the professional participants of the shares market, no shares or any product you do not get! Any source of income is ALSO NOT HERE!”
Despite this, the scheme has found many takers in India. As a recent article in the Business Standard points outIn India, adherents in the countryside of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Punjab are growing by the day. There are plans to take the network to other states.”
This is not the first time that Mavrodi has successfully launched a Ponzi scheme. He has done so in Russia in the past. The sudden switch from communism to capitalism in Russia created an unstable environment that made it ripe for running Ponzi Schemes.
MMM Corporation was the largest and the most famous of the lot. It was started by Sergei Mavrodi, a former mathematician, MMM issued share certificates which looked like bank notes. (These share certificates were not traded on any stock exchange).
Attracted by promised returns of 10% per week, the investors lapped up the share certificates. MMM became a market maker for these share certificates. The money collected by selling share certificates to the investors was not invested but essentially used to pay off the investors, selling the share certificates back to MMM. Effectively, money from the newer investors was used to pay off the older investors.
When questions were raised about the huge returns, it had promised, MMM stated that it had solid investments, but did not want to disclose them as its competitors might imitate its investment strategy. The returns offered were higher than those offered by Russian commercial banks, which were not very stable at that point of time. So many people withdrew their deposits from banks and bought share certificates issued by MMM. In the 1994 football World cup, which was held in the months of June-July in the United States of America, the Russian soccer team was sponsored by MMM. MMM advertisements ran extensively on state television and became very famous in Russia.
In July 1994, the Ministry of Finance warned investors about the unsustainibility of the scheme. This started a run on the scheme with investors dumping the share certificates enmasse. Soon the amount of money leaving the scheme was greater than the amount of money entering the scheme. On 26th July 1994, the share certificate scheme collapsed with all but one offices of the firm being closed down.
By getting elected to the Russian Duma, Mavrodi obtained immunity from prosecution, as per the Russian Constitution. After refusing to honour his previous commitments, Mavrodi decided to start a similar scheme which promised very high returns. Despite his past failure, many investors queued up to invest. In Oct 1995, Mavrodi was expelled from the Duma. He tried his best to get re-elected, but failed. A case was filed against him.
And it is the same Mavrodi who has now come to India to a run a Ponzi scheme. The beauty of this scheme is that he is even telling his potential customers that he is running a Ponzi scheme. But people being people, are still falling for it. 
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on April 15, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Sahara and Ponzi schemes: What are the parallels?

 J164133002

Vivek Kaul

Dr K M Abraham of Securities Exchange Board of India (Sebi), in his June 23, 2011 order, against two Sahara group companies, Sahara India Real Estate Corporation Limited and Sahara Housing Investment Corporation Limited, had alluded to the possibility of a Ponzi scheme.
In his order Abraham had said “The Learned Counsel, at one point in the submissions before me, mentioned the fact that there are no investor complaints at all, from any investor in the OFCDs (optionally fully convertible debenture) raised by the two Companies. Going by the history of scams in financial markets across the globe, the number of investor complaints has never been a good measure or indicator of the risk to which the investors are exposed. Most major ‘Ponzi’ schemes in the financial markets, which have finally blown up in the face of millions of unsuspecting investors, have historically never been accompanied by a gradual build up of investor complaints.”
A Ponzi scheme is essentially a fraudulent investment scheme where money brought in by the newer investors is used to pay off the older investors. This creates an impression of a successful investment scheme. Of course as long money entering the scheme is greater than the money leaving it, all is well. The moment the situation is reversed, the scheme collapses. (For a more detailed and historical treatment of Ponzi schemes click here).
So does that mean that Sahara is a Ponzi scheme where money is simply being rotated? While there is not enough information available in the public domain to come to this conclusion nevertheless several interesting points can be made.
One of the characteristics of a Ponzi scheme is that the scheme appears to be a genuine investment opportunity but at the same time it is obscure enough, to prevent any scrutiny by the investors. The optionally fully convertible debentures that the two Sahara group companies issued to raise money from nearly 3 crore investors do fall into this category of investment which sounds genuine enough and at the same time is obscure enough to prevent any scrutiny by investors. Further, Sahara raises its money from the lowest strata of the society, a lot of whom do not even have bank accounts. So the chances of questions being asked are very low.
Another characteristic of a Ponzi scheme is that the operators of the Ponzi Scheme persuade the investors to roll over the profits into the next investment cycle. So the returns remain on paper. Since the money remains with the operator the Ponzi scheme keeps running.
This is exactly what was done by a host of Non Banking Financial Corporations (NBFCs) in the nineties. Billboards promising exorbitant rates of return started showing up all over small town India. Money from the later investors was used to pay off the earlier investors. In many cases, once their investments matured, the investors were persuaded to reinvest the principal and interest on the investment back into the scheme.
This seems to be true in case of Sahara by their own admission. As their spokesperson recently told the Business Standard “Right from last 30 years, we have observed that our field workers try their best to pursue the depositors/investors to reinvest in some other scheme of the group because they get their livelihood from that since they earn commission on it. They always impress and hold their introduced depositor/investor by giving best human service throughout the tenure of the scheme.”
Most of the Ponzi Schemes start with an apparently legitimate or legal purpose. Hometrade started off as a broker of government securities, Nidhis were mutually beneficial companies and Anubhav Plantations was a plantations company. They used their apparently legitimate or legal purpose as a façade to run a Ponzi Scheme. Same stands true for the present day Ponzi schemes. Speak Asia was in the magazine and survey business. Emu Ponzi schemes were in the business of rearing and selling emus. And Stockguru claimed to be making money by investing in the stock market.
Similarly Sahara is into a variety of businesses from running hotels to making films and television serials and building homes, which are all legitimate. The money raised by Sahara supposedly finances these businesses. What is questionable however is that are any of these businesses making money? Also has all the money that has been raised put to use?The film business of the company has been scaled down majorly over the years. The listed businesses of the group can’t be said to be doing terribly well either. Very little financial information regarding the group is available in the public domain to perform any reasonable financial analysis on it. (You can access some financial information regarding the group here).
Brand building is also an inherent part of a Ponzi Scheme. MMM, a Russian Ponzi scheme marketed itself very aggressively. In the 1994 football World cup, the Russian soccer team was sponsored by MMM. MMM advertisements ran extensively on state television and became very famous in Russia. Hometrade also used the mass media to build a brand image for itself. It launched a high decibel advertising campaign featuring Sachin Tendulkar, Hrithik Roshan and Shahrukh Khan. When the company collapsed, the celebrity endorsers washed their hands off the saying that they did not know what the business of Hometrade was.
Sahara is the official sponsor of the Indian cricket team. Given this the entire Indian team has been advertising the new Q shop venture of the group. So who are investors more likely to believe while parting with their hard earned money? Sachin Tendulkar, cricketing great and a Member of Parliament, or dull advertisements put out by SEBI asking investors not hand over their money to Sahara Q shop?
In an advertisement headlined “Don’t be forced, don’t be misguided” the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) had asked investors “not to yield to any pressure from any person, including Sahara or its agents, for converting or switching their existing investments in the bonds to any of the other schemes like Q-shop, etc.”
Sahara also owns the Pune IPL team. It also has a stake in an F1 racing team Sahara Force India, whose other high profile owner is Vijay Mallya.
A final point to remember about Ponzi schemes is that the finally become too big and collapse under their own weight. Let us say someone decides to start a Ponzi scheme with the intention to defraud people.
He gets 100 members to start with and each one of them contributes Rs 10,000 to become a member of the scheme. The members in turn are promised Rs 50,000 back in a period of one year. Given that the scheme is a Ponzi scheme, there is no business model to generate returns and give out the Rs 50,000 promised to each investor. So the guy running the Ponzi scheme has to take the money being brought in by the newer investors to pay off these original investors.
Now every investor has been promised Rs 50,000. To enter the scheme Rs 10,000 is required. Hence to get Rs 50,000 to pay off one original investor, five new investors have to be roped in. Each one of them pays Rs 10,000 each and thus Rs 50,000 is raised to pay off the original investor.
The point to note here is that the Rs 50,000 that each original investor gets is basically the money being brought in by five new investors. Hence, the money gained by the original investors is basically the money brought in by the five new investors. And that is what makes a Ponzi scheme a zero sum game. The original investors gained only because the latter investors were willing to pay. No new wealth has been created.
This also means that to pay off the 100 original investors 500 new investors need to be brought in.
So that’s the first level of the Ponzi.
What happens next?
After the original lot has been paid off, the 500 investors who entered the second level of the Ponzi need to be paid off, to keep the scheme going. To pay off each of these investors five new investors are required, which in total means 2500 investors. If the fraudster running the Ponzi manages to get 2500 or more investors, the scheme continues.
Let us say the fraudster manages to get 2500 investors and each of these investors pays Rs 10,000. The money thus collected is used to pay off the 500 investors of the second round. In the third round 2500 investors have to be paid, for which 12,500 investors need to invest money in the Ponzi scheme.
If the scheme continues successfully by the ninth round nearly 19.5 crore new investors need to be brought in to keep the Ponzi scheme going. India’s population as per the latest census is around 120 crore. This means that for this hypothetical scheme to continue nearly 16% of the population of India needs to invest in it.
So any Ponzi scheme if it becomes sufficiently big has to collapse because the number of people required to keep it running it simply way too big. One way to avoid this to keep get investors to reinvest their money back into the scheme and live to fight another day.
But all Ponzi schemes collapse in the end under their own weight. A mutli level marketing(MLM) kind of Ponzi scheme is a very good example of a Ponzi scheme that ultimately collapses under its own weight.
In an MLM scheme a company appoints independent distributors, who are not employees of the company. The products of the company are sold to the distributors, who not only sell these products to make a profit, but also appoint more distributors and so the cycle goes on.
The company goes about appointing distributors but the catch is that the products the distributors buy rarely get sold and is just there to build a façade of a business model.
A major part of the commission earned by a distributor comes from appointing new distributors to the company, and thus creating a new level. And so the scheme goes on, with newer levels being created. The return to the upper levels comes from creating new levels rather than the sale of the product. The wealth gained by participants at the higher levels is the wealth lost by participants at lower levels.
Like any other Ponzi Scheme there are only a finite number of people who can enter the scheme. So after some time the number of people required to keep the scheme going becomes very large and the scheme goes bust.
As Debashis Basu wrote in a recent column in Business Standard “Now they(MLM schemes) come under the garb of selling you some expensive products or some vague services: gold coins (Gold Quest), lifestyle products (QNet), surveys (Speak Asia), and so on. So, at any time, they have the fig leaf of providing some “value”. Even Amway, Oriflame and Tupperware rely on a model with recruitment and ever-expanding chain. For those at the end of the chain to get some crumbs and to sustain the whole chain, products have to be hugely expensive. Even then, most people make no money. New recruits are shown a dream — what people in the second link of the chain have achieved. But they are not told that no one beyond the top two or three layers really makes any money.”
While Ponzi schemes keep going bust newer ones keep coming and taking their place. This is sad because for the economy as whole, they are undesirable. Every time a Ponzi scheme is exposed, the confidence of the investor in the financial system goes down. Investors become reluctant to part with their money. This in turn hampers the ability of the capitalist system to raise capital for newer ventures.
The attraction of easy wealth is something that investors cannot resist. Ponzi Schemes offer huge returns in a short period of time vis a vis other investments available in the market at that point of time. With good advertising and stories of previous investors who made a killing by investing in the scheme, investors get caught in the euphoria that is generated and hand over their hard earned money to such schemes going against their common sense.
Greed also results when investors see people they know make money through the Ponzi Scheme. As economist Charles Kindleberger wrote in his all time classic Manias, Panics and Crashes There is nothing so disturbing to one’s well being and judgement as to see a friend get rich”. In a country like India where the per capita income is low the chances of people falling for Ponzi Schemes continue to remain high.
The only way out of this menace is by punishing people who run Ponzi schemes quickly. Rather than assuming investors are knowledgeable about investment opportunities, and instead of providing investors with more information about particular investments, disseminating information about investments gone awry may be a better bet to control this problem.
As Basu writes in his column “The ministry of finance and financial regulators may like to believe that they oversee the financial sector well. They are really deluding themselves. The money people lose in pyramid schemes is a few times the size of equity mutual funds or life insurance plans, on which millions of words are written and thousands of regulatory man-hours are spent. And all the literacy workshops funded by the government and industry would seem such a joke if pyramid schemes are allowed to flourish.”
Hence, its time the government woke up to this and did something about this menace, starting by punishing some of the big boys.

The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on December 12, 2012.

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])

Wiser after Stockguru: 5 ways to spot a Ponzi scheme


 
Vivek Kaul
So a Ponzi scheme is in the news again. Last time it was the emu Ponzi scheme. Before that there was Speak Asia. Now it’s the turn of Stock Guru to take investors across the county for a ride. The modus operandi as is the case with all Ponzi schemes is the same: the lure of high returns. In the end more than the frauds who ran Stock Guru it’s the investors who invested in the scheme have only themselves to blame.  There greed did them in.
While one Ponzi scheme differs from another, but despite the details changing, the structure abides. Let’s first try and understand what exactly is a Ponzi scheme and why is it so called.
Charles Ponzi
Chalres Ponzi was an Italian immigrant who landed in America in 1903. Sometime in August 1919, in the process of starting an export magazine, he realised that there was money to be made through an arbitrage opportunity that existed. Ponzi sent an offer to a person in Spain requesting him to subscribe to the magazine. The subscriber agreed and sent Ponzi an international postal reply coupon. This coupon could be exchanged at the post office for American stamps which would be needed to send the magazine to the Spanish subscriber. The coupon in Spain cost the equivalent of one cent in American currency. In America when Ponzi exchanged the coupon, he got six cents worth of stamps. And this set Ponzi thinking.
What was the plan?
The plan was very simple. Ponzi could buy international postal reply coupons convert them into American stamps and sell those stamps and make money. So he would need one cent to buy an international postal reply coupon in Spain. That coupon could be exchanged for stamps worth six cents in America and those stamps could then be sold for six cents. Hence there was a clear profit of five cents, assuming there were no other charges, to be made on every one cent that was invested. The trouble of course was that Ponzi needed money to get started.
Double your money in 90 days
So Ponzi launched an investment scheme asking people to invest. He promised them that he would double their money in 90 days. Ponzi would make a profit of five cents for every one cent that he invested. That meant a profit of 500%. As far as investors were concerned he was only promising to double their money and that meant a return of 100%. Hence, on the face of it looked like a reasonably safe proposition. At its peak, the scheme had 40,000 investors who had invested around $ 15 million in the scheme.
What went wrong?
As if often the case what sounds great in theory cannot be put into practise. The idea was brilliant. But Ponzi had not taken into account the difficulties involved in dealing with various postal organizations around the world, along with other problems involved in transferring and converting currency. Also with all the money coming in Ponzi couldn’t stop himself from living an extravagant life and blowing up the money investors brought in.
But soon doubts started arising on the legitimacy of the scheme. The Boston Post newspaper ran a story on July 26, 1929, and within a few hours, angry depositors lined up at Ponzi’s door, demanding their money back. Ponzi settled the obligations of the people who had gathered. The anger subsided, but not for long.  On Aug 10th, 1920, the scheme collapsed. It was revealed that Ponzi had purchased only two international postal reply coupons and was using money brought in by the new investors to pay off old investors.
So what is a Ponzi scheme?
Robert Shiller, an economist at Yale University in the United States defines Ponzi schemes as “A Ponzi Scheme involves a superficially plausible but unverifiable story about how money is made for the investors and the fraudulent creation of high returns for initial investors by giving them money invested by subsequent investors. Initial investor response to the scheme tends to be weak, but as the rounds of high returns generate excitement, the story becomes increasingly believable and exciting to investors. ( Adapted from Shiller 2003).” Hence, a Ponzi scheme is essentially a fraudulent investment scheme where money brought in by the newer investors is used to pay off the older investors. This creates an impression of a successful investment scheme. Of course as long money entering the scheme is greater than the money leaving it, all is well. The moment the situation is reversed, the scheme collapses.
This kind of financial fraud happened even before Ponzi’s name came to be attached to it. And it continues to happen more than ninety years after Charles Ponzi ran his scam.
Any Ponzi Scheme will differ from another Ponzi Scheme. But if one may borrow a French phrase, Plus Ca Change, Plus C’est La Meme Chose, the more things change, the more they remain the same. The details might change from scheme to scheme, but the structure abides. Here are some characteristics of Ponzi schemes.
The instrument in which the scheme will invest appears to be a genuine investment opportunity but at the same time it is obscure enough, to prevent any scrutiny by the investors.
In case of the emu Ponzi scheme an investor was supposed to rear emus and then sell their meat, oil etc. In order to become a member of Speak Asia one had to invest Rs 11,000. This investment was for subscribing to the electronic magazine issued by the company called “Surveys Today”.
This also allowed the member to participate in two online surveys every week and make Rs 500 per survey or Rs 1000 per week. This when converted into a yearly number came to Rs 52,000 (Rs 1000 x 52). So an investment of Rs 11,000 ensured that Rs 52,000 was made through surveys, which meant a return of 373% in one year.
And this was basically the main selling point of the scheme.  So the business model of the company was pretty vague. The legal advisor of the company Ashok Saraogi said at a press conference “The company is not selling any surveys to panellists but e-zines (electronic magazines) to its subscribers. Surveys are offered as additional benefit and can be withdrawn anytime if the company’s contract with clients comes to an end.”
Stock Guru also worked along these lines. The company claimed to be making money by investing in stocks and had this to advise to its customers: “We advise our clients to buy shares at a low price and sell them at a higher price. Selecting the right share at the right price and entering the capital market at the right time is an art. We help all our clients to make huge profits by investing in good shares for very short/short/medium/long term depending upon the client’s requirements.” Very sane advise when it comes to investing in the stock market but nothing specific about how the company plans to help its clients make a huge profit.
Most of the Ponzi Schemes start with an apparently legitimate or legal purpose.
Let’s take a look at some of the Ponzi schemes of yore. Hometrade started off as a broker of government securities, Nidhis were mutually beneficial companies and Anubhav Plantations was a plantations company. They used their apparently legitimate or legal purpose as a façade to run a Ponzi Scheme. Same stands true for the present day Ponzi schemes. Speak Asia was in the magazine and survey business. Emu Ponzi schemes were in the business of rearing and selling emus. And Stock Guru helped investors make money by investing in stocks.
The most important part of a Ponzi scheme is assuring the investor that their investment is safe.
This is where the meeting of initial obligations becomes very important. Early investors become the most important part of the scheme and spread it through word of mouth, so that more investors invest in the scheme and help keep it going. Ironically enough, in many cases it is their own money that is being returned to them. Let us say an investor invests Rs.100 in a scheme that promises 20% return in 60 days. So Rs.20/- can be paid out of investor’s own money once every two months up to ten months. The Ponzi scheme can keep going by essentially returning the investor his own money. Speak Asia did this by returning around Rs 250 crore to the investors from the Rs 2000 crore it had managed to collect. This gave the scheme a greater legitimacy.
Stock Guru also worked along similar lines. As an article in the Money Life magazine pointed out “You pay Rs10,000 as investment and Rs1,000 as registration fees. There is no limit on the maximum amount one can invest. Stockguruindia.com offered a return of 20% per month for up to six months and the principal amount invested is returned in the next six months. It also gave post-dated cheques of the principal and a promissory note as security.”
As a story in The Times of India points out “People invested between Rs 10,000 and Rs 60 lakh at one go in Stock Guru India as Ulhas promised to double their capital…He (i.e.Ulhas Khaire who ran the scam) also returned money to some investors to win their trust so that they would recommend Stock Guru to others,” said an officer. In fact this initial lot of investors become brand ambassadors and passionate advocates of the scheme. When this writer wrote about Speak Asia being a Ponzi scheme he got stinkers from a lot of people who had invested their money in Speak Asia at the very beginning and made good returns.
The rate of return promised is high and is fixed at the time the investor enters the scheme. So the investor knows in advance what return he can expect from the scheme. The promised returns were substantially higher compared to other investment avenues available in the market at that point of time. The rate of return was also fixed in advance. So there was no volatility in returns as is in other forms of investment. This twin combination of high and fixed returns helps in attracting more and more investors into the scheme.
In Speak Asia the investor knew that he would get paid Rs 1000 per week for conducting surveys. And by the end of the year he would earn Rs 52,000 on an initial investment of Rs 11,000.
In case of Stock Guru a minimum of Rs 10,000 was to made as an investment. And Rs 1,000 was the registration charge. The company promised a return of 20% per month against the investment for the first six months. For a person investing Rs 10,000 that would mean a return of Rs 2,000 per month or Rs 12,000 after the first six months. The principal amount of Rs 10,000 would be returned over the next six months. Hence on an investment of Rs 11,000, a profit of Rs 12,000 was being made in a very short period of time. These were fantastic returns.
Brand building is an inherent part of a Ponzi Scheme.
MMM, a Russian Ponzi scheme marketed itself very aggressively. In the 1994 football World cup, the Russian soccer team was sponsored by MMM. MMM advertisements ran extensively on state television and  became very famous in Russia.  Hometrade also used the mass media to build a brand image for itself. It launched a  high decibel advertising campaign featuring Sachin Tendulkar, Hrithik Roshan and Shahrukh Khan. When the company collapsed, the celebrity endorsers washed their hands off the saying that they did not know what the business of Hometrade was. Anubhav Plantations also ran a huge advertising campaign. Film stars also advocated investing in the emu Ponzi schemes.
Speak Asia ran a huge ad campaign. The irony was it advertised extensively in newspapers which dealt with personal finance. Stock Guru did its level of brand building as well. As a report in the Times of India points out “ Ulhas Prabhakar Khaire andRaksha Urs, masterminds of the multi-crore Stock Guru fraud, would organize their promotional events in Macau, Malaysia, Mauritius and several other countries, taking only a few premium investors on expenses-paid trips, say Delhi Police sources. The events were reportedly organised regularly in five-star hotels, and Ulhas made all the arrangements, including booking flights for investors and celebrities. Ulhas is learnt to have named two Bollywood celebrities he invited to his promotional events.”
All these things lead to people investing in these schemes. The attraction of easy wealth is something that investors cannot resist. Ponzi schemes offer huge returns in a short period of time vis a vis other investments available in the market at that point of time. With good advertising and stories of previous investors who made a killing by investing in the scheme, investors get caught in the euphoria that is generated and hand over their hard earned money to such schemes going against their common sense. Greed also results when investors see people they know make money through the Ponzi scheme. As economic historian Charles Kindleberger  once wrote  “ There is nothing so disturbing to one’s well being and judgment as to see a friend get rich.”
Given this, even though a lot of questions can be asked they are not asked. Ponzi schemes have not been eliminated. This is sad because for the economy as whole, they are undesirable. The world has not learned from its experience. “Mundus vult decipi-ergo decipitaur-The world wants to be deceived , let it therefore be deceived ”. (Winkler 1933 as quoted in Kindlberger 2000).
All Ponzi schemes collapse in the end once the money leaving the scheme becomes greater than the money entering it. Stock Guru was no different.
To conclude, any investment scheme promising more than 15% return a year has to be a very risky proposition. It may not always be a Ponzi scheme, but the chances are that it is more often than not.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on November 15, 2012.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected])

Lessons from Ek Tha Tiger even if you aren’t a Salman fan


Vivek Kaul

I haven’t seen a Salman Khan movie in a cinema hall in more than 17 years now. The last time was when I saw Hum Aapke Hain Koun for the twelfth and the last time, at the Sujata cinema in Ranchi, sometime in February 1995. The movie was running in its record twenty seventh week. And as many of you would agree Hum Aapke Hain Koun was more of a Madhuri Dixit movie than a Salman Khan one.
Those were days when movies ran for prolonged periods and the 3200 print release that Salman Khan’s most recent release Ek Tha Tiger had, were unheard of. Money was made over a period of time and not in the first three-four days of release.
Given that, if the people did not like the movie over the first three four days of its release the chances of the movie doing well were rather low. Unlike these days when the marketing blitzkrieg that accompanies a big release is so huge that most people are tempted to watch the movie over the first weekend of its release, and before they realize that they have ended up watching a lousy movie, the producer has made his money. What nobody really tells you is that how much money all these superhit movies make on the “fifth” day after their release?
This strategy also requires a large number of prints of the movie being released to ensure that everyone and anyone who wants to see the movie gets to watch it. Hence the days when house-full boards were put up in front of cinema-halls are long gone.
Getting back to where we started. Salman Khan has attained a superstar status in Hindi cinema over the last few years. His movies have constantly done a business of over Rs 100 crore. Movies like Wanted, Ready and Bodyguard which were remakes of hit movies from down south, were superhits in Hindi as well.
But the movies of Salman Khan have never found favour with serious film critics (leaving out the ones who run film trade journals and have other incentives at work ).
So I was rather surprised when Salman’s latest release Ek Tha Tiger got reasonably good reviews in most of the mainstream media. This got me interested and I decided to break my rule of not spending money on a Salman Khan movie and go check out the movie at the nearest multiplex.
Half way through Ek Tha Tiger I had a throbbing headache. It was similar to the one I had got when I was forced to watch Ready (or was it Bodyguard?) on television with a young cousin. The movie does have a few things going for it. The foreign locales in ETT (as diehard fans of Salman like to call it) are new. Indian cinema goers have never seen movies shot in Turkey, Cuba and Ireland, before this. Also Katrina Kaif has acted better than the dumb blonde she portrays well in most of her other movies. The supporting cast has acted well.
But on the whole the movie is a little better than the mindless crap offered by Salman’s earlier releases like Ready, Bodyguard, Wanted etc. So the question is why had so many film reviewers gone around giving it the kind of good reviews that they had?
They had become victims of what behavioural economists call the ‘contrast effect’. We all tend to compare things before making a decision. Given this, the attraction of an option can be increased significantly by comparing it to a similar, but worse alternative. This is known as the ‘contrast effect’.
Let’s understand this through an example. Real estate agents who help put out homes on rent, use the contrast effect very well. The way it has worked with me whenever I have tried to look for a rented accommodation is somewhat like this.
The agent first takes me around and shows me a couple of apartments which are not in the best of condition. While coming out of these places, seeing my displeasure, the agent typically says that the apartment I showed you wasn’t really great.
“So why did you show it to me?” I normally question him, after we are out of the apartment. In such cases I get stock replies like, “Oh this place came to me only today morning. I hadn’t checked it out before, I wouldn’t have shown it to you otherwise,” or “I am just trying to figure out what kind of place you really want.”
This is where part-one of the act ends. Then the agent shows a place which is slightly better than the few run down places he had shown to me a little earlier. But the difference is that the rent in this case is significantly higher.
This is the “contrast effect” at work. The attractiveness of the apartment shown later is increased significantly by showing a few “run down” apartments earlier. The critics who reviewed Ek Tha Tiger had fallen victims to the same “contrast effect”. They had found the earlier movies of Salman Khan so lousy that in comparison a slightly better Ek Tha Tiger was felt to be much better.
The contrast effect has been put to great use by retailers as well to increase the attractiveness of certain products. A 1992 research paper written by Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky, shows this through an example of a retailer who was selling a bread making machine. The machine was priced at $275. In the days to come the company also started selling a similar but larger bread making machine. The sales of this new machine were very low. But a very interesting thing happened. The sales of the $275 machine more or less doubled. As an article on the website of the Harvard Law School points out “Apparently, the $275 model didn’t seem like a bargain until it was sitting next to the $429 model.” (you can read the complete article here)
This is a trick used by retailers all over the world to great effect. By displaying two largely similar but differently priced products, the sales of the product with the lower price can be increased significantly by making it look like a bargain.
The contrast effect can also be put to use while making financial negotiations, like in the case of a job offer. In this case it makes sense to start with asking for more than you expect realistically. “The contrast effect suggests a strategic move: ask for more than you realistically expect, accept rejection, and then shade your offer downward. Your counterpart in the financial negotiations is likely to find a reasonable offer even more appealing after rejecting an offer that’s out of the question,” points the Havard Law School article points out.
Another area where contrast effect is used to great effect is while selling a fraudulent financial scheme which is basically a Ponzi scheme. In 1919, Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant to the United States of America (US), promised to double the money of investors who invested in his scheme in 90 days.
The news spread quickly. Money started pouring in as no other investments in the market at that point of time, promised such high returns, in such a short span of time. At its peak, the scheme had 40,000 investors who had invested around $ 15 million in the scheme. Meanwhile, Ponzi had started living an extravagant life blowing up the money investors brought in.
On Aug 10th, 1920, the scheme collapsed. The auditors, the newspapers and the banks declared that Ponzi was definitely bankrupt. It was revealed that money brought in by the new investors was used to pay off old investors. Thus an illusion of a successful investment scheme was created.
Charles Ponzi was not the last guy to run a fraudulent Ponzi scheme. Such Ponzi schemes have continued since then and keep cropping up all the time.
The contrast effect is at play when investors decide to invest in a Ponzi scheme. It becomes relevant in the context of a Ponzi Scheme when the prospective investor starts comparing the returns on the various schemes available in the market for investment at that point of time to the returns being promised by the Ponzi scheme. The high returns of the Ponzi Scheme stand out clearly and attract gullible investors.
So film reviewers are not the only “victims” of the contrast effect. It is at work in various facets of our “financial” lives as well. There was another big learning for me from the Ek Tha Tiger experiment. The next time I convince myself to watch a Salman Khan movie at a multiplex the least I could do is watch the morning show and not waste much money in the process.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 20,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/lessons-from-ek-tha-tiger-even-if-you-arent-a-salman-fan-423669.html
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected] He is not a Shahrukh Khan fan)