Why smart people fall for Ponzi schemes

Sometime back a friend called and had a rather peculiar question. He wanted to know how he could go about stopping one of his friends from peddling a Ponzi scheme.

This was a rather tricky question. Just explaining to someone selling a Ponzi scheme that he is selling a Ponzi scheme, does not really work. The first question I asked my friend was how was his friend doing in life? “He is doing well for himself,” said my friend with a chuckle. “He works in a senior position with a corporate and has managed to sell the scheme to at least ten people in the housing society that he lives in.”

“If he is working at a senior position, why is he doing this?” I asked my friend, and immediately realised that I had asked a rather stupid question. “I was hoping you would be able to answer that,” my friend replied.

This column is an outcome of that conversation.

Over the last ten years of writing on Ponzi schemes I have come to the realisation that many people who sell and in the process invest in Ponzi schemes are not just victims of greed or a sustained marketing campaign, as is often made out to be.

There is much more to it than that. Many individuals selling and investing Ponzi schemes (like my friend’s friend) come from the upper strata of the society, are well educated and know fully well what they are doing. In case of my friend’s friend he was selling a multilevel marketing scheme for which the membership fee is more than Rs 3 lakh. So, the scheme is clearly aimed at the well to do.

On becoming a member you are allowed to sell products, some of which cost as much as a lakh. Of course, you will also be making new members as well. The bulk of the membership fee paid by the new members you make, will be passed on to you. Hence, the more people you get in as members, the more money you make. Selling products is just incidental to the entire thing, given that a membership costs more than Rs 3 lakh.

This is a classic Ponzi scheme in which money being brought in by the new investors (through membership fee) is being used to pay off old investors (who had already paid their membership fee), with the business model of selling products providing a sort of a façade to the entire thing.

So, the question is why does the smart lot fall for Ponzi schemes? As John Kay writes in Other People’s Money—Masters of the Universe or Servants of the People: “Even if you know, or suspect, a Ponzi scheme, you might hope to get out in time, with a profit. I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”

People feel that the money will keep coming in. Or what the financial market likes to call ‘liquidity,’ won’t dry up. And this is the mistake that they make.
Kay defines liquidity as the “capacity of the supply chain to meet a sudden or exceptional demand without disruption…This capability is achieved…in one or both of two ways: by maintaining stocks, and by the temporary diversion of supplies from other uses.”

Kay in his book compares the concept of liquidity to the daily delivery of milk in the city of Edinburgh in Scotland where he grew up. As he writes: “In the Edinburgh of fifty years ago fresh milk was delivered everyday…At ordinary times our demand for milk was stable. But sometimes we would have visitors and need extra milk. My mother would usually tell the milkman the day before, but if she forgot, the milkman would have extra supplies on his float to meet our needs. Of course, if all his customers did this, he wouldn’t have been able to accommodate them.”

What is the important point here? That people trusted the milkman to deliver every morning. And given that they did not stock up on milk, more than what was required on any given day. If the trust was missing then the system wouldn’t have worked.

Take the case of how things were in the erstwhile Soviet Union. As Kay writes: “In the Soviet economy there was no such confidence, and queues were routine, not just because there was an actual insufficiency of supply – though there often was – but because consumers would rush to obtain whatever supplies were available.”

And how does that apply in case of Ponzi schemes? As I mentioned earlier, the individual selling Ponzi schemes feel confident that the money will keep coming in. Those they sell the scheme also become sellers. And for the Ponzi scheme to continue, the new lot also needs to have the same confidence.

In the milk example shared above, if people of Edinburgh had started hoarding milk, the liquidity the system had would have broken down. The confidence that milk would be delivered every day kept the system going. Along similar lines, the confidence that money will keep coming into a Ponzi scheme, gets smart people into it as well.

Of course, this confidence can change at any point of time. And if a sufficient number of people stop feeling confident, then the scenario changes. The money coming into the Ponzi scheme stops and the moment the money coming into the scheme becomes lesser than the money going out, it collapses. So that’s the thing with liquidity, it is there, till it is not there.

In my friend’s friend case, members down the line would stop making more members. Also, members who had bought the membership from my friend’s friend are likely to turn up at his doorstep and demand their money back.

And given that he has told membership to many people in his housing society, he can’t just get up and disappear, given that he is essentially not a scamster. He is a family man with a wife, children and parents, who stay with him.

Hence, he will have to refund them, if he has continue living in the housing society in a peaceful environment. How will he do that? Let’s go back to the definition of liquidity as explained above. Liquidity is maintained by “by maintaining stocks, and by the temporary diversion of supplies from other uses.” So my friend’s friend can pay up from the money he has already accumulated by selling these Ponzi schemes. If that is not enough, he can dip into his savings. And if even that is not enough, he can hopefully take the money being brought in by the new members (if at all there are people like that) and hand them over to the members demanding their money back.

Of course, by doing this he will only be postponing the problem, given that he would have to later deal with the new members.

Long story short—he is screwed!

The column originally appeared on The Daily Reckoning on Oct 13, 2015

Why we buy lottery tickets

lotteryThe funny thing about memories is that we remember what we remember. And those memories may not always be a true reflection of how things may have originally happened. What we live with are our versions of how things may have really happened. And this we tell ourselves is the truth.

One abiding memory that I have from my childhood is that of my father buying lottery tickets. I don’t remember how often he did it. Neither do I remember how long he did it for. But I do remember that there was a time when he used to buy lottery tickets regularly. And in my version of this memory, I remember him beaming on days he used to buy a lottery ticket. He looked genuinely happy on those days.

And all these years later, I wonder why he smiled on the days he bought a lottery ticket, given that he never really won anything. Of course, I did not understand the reason back then, but now with some understanding of why people behave in a certain way, I do.

As John Kay writes in Other People’s Money: “A lottery ticket, which millions of people buy each week, is a wager. Cynics have advised that you would do well to buy your ticket at the last minute, because otherwise the probability that you will die before the draw is greater than the probability that you will win the headline prize.”

Jokes apart, why do individuals actually buy lottery tickets, given that the probability of winning the big-prizes on offer on any lottery, is very low. Only a few people out of the millions who buy lottery tickets regularly, are likely to win the top prize.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains this in Thinking, Fast and Slow: “The possibility effect…explains why lotteries are very popular. When the top prize is very large, ticket buyers appear indifferent to the fact that their chance of winning is minuscule.”

The point being that unless you buy a lottery ticket you have no chance of winning. As Kahneman points out: “A lottery ticket is the ultimate example of the possibility effect. Without a ticket you cannot win, with a ticket you have a chance, and whether the chance is tiny or merely small matters little. Of course, what people acquire with a ticket is more than chance to win; it is the right to dream pleasantly of winning.”

And that I guess explains my father’s beaming face every time he bought a lottery ticket. In fact as Kahneman puts it: “Buying a ticket is immediately rewarded by pleasant fantasies…The actual probability is inconsequential; only the possibility matters.”

In fact, promoters, companies and governments (as is the case in India and other parts of the world) which sell lottery tickets, understand this fact very well. As Kay writes: “Promoters have learned through experience how to design an attractive lottery product. A few very large prizes establish the dream. A large number of very small prizes encourage customers to maintain the belief that ‘It could be you’.”

This structure of the lottery also explains why people keeping going back to buying tickets even though their chance of winning the big prize is close to zero. As Kay points out: “When lottery patrons lose, as they mostly do, they can sustain the dream by promising themselves that they will buy a ticket again next week. ‘It could be you’ was the well-judged slogan with which Britain’s national lottery was launched.”

So, the story and the hope of winning a big lottery continues among millions of people all over the world. And it is hope which makes a dull and dreary life, liveable at the end of the day. If that means buying a lottery ticket, then so be it.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

The column originally appeared in the Bangalore Mirror on Oct 7, 2015

The robber barons of India

rober barons

In his latest book Other People’s Money—Masters of the Universe or Servants of the People?, the British economist John Kay talks about the robber barons of the United States, who lived through the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century.

As Kay writes: “The late nineteenth century is described as ‘the gilded age’ of American capitalism. The dominant figures of that era – men such as Henry Clay Frick, Jay Gould, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt – are often called the ‘robber barons.’

These robber barons helped build the railroads, oil supply systems and steel mills of the United States. As Kay writes: “They were both industrialists and financers, in varying degrees…But their immense personal wealth was as much the product of financial manipulation as of productive activity.”
Now replace United States with India, and you can see the similarities. While the United States had robber barons in the nineteenth and the early twentieth century, India has had them in the twentieth and the twenty-first century.

The Reserve Bank of India governor explained the finance skills of Indian businessmen in great detail in a speech he made in November 2014. As Rajan said: “The reason so many projects are in trouble today is because they were structured up front with too little equity, sometimes borrowed by the promoter from elsewhere. And some promoters find ways to take out the equity as soon as the project gets going, so there really is no cushion when bad times hit.”

What Rajan was essentially saying here is that many Indian businessmen start a project with very little of their own money invested in it. Further, some of them even manage to tunnel out this small investment as soon as the project starts. This is typically done by over stating the cost of the project, borrowing against the higher number and then tunnelling out a portion of the debt that has been taken on to get the project going.

Also, in the last few years, many Indian businessmen have taken on more bank loans than they could have possibly repaid. They have subsequently defaulted on it or renegotiated the terms, leaving the banks in a lurch. Interestingly, even after defaulting on their loans, they have continued to be in positions of control.

As Rajan said during the course of his speech: “In much of the globe, when a large borrower defaults, he is contrite and desperate to show that the lender should continue to trust him with management of the enterprise. In India, too many large borrowers insist on their divine right to stay in control despite their unwillingness to put in new money. The firm and its many workers, as well as past bank loans, are the hostages in this game of chicken — the promoter threatens to run the enterprise into the ground unless the government, banks, and regulators make the concessions that are necessary to keep it alive.”

And if after all this, the business comes back to health, the businessmen tends to benefit the most. As Rajan said: “The promoter retains all the upside, forgetting the help he got from the government or the banks – after all, banks should be happy they got some of their money back!  No wonder government ministers worry about a country where we have many sick companies but no “sick” promoters.”

These businessmen over the years have survived on essentially manipulating the system (or what we like to call jugaad) and surviving on multiple doles from the government. This is something that Rajan clearly pointed out in a recent speech, where he said: “India must resist special interest pleas for targeted stimulus, additional tax breaks and protections, directed credit, subventions and subsidies, all of which have historically rendered industry uncompetitive, government over-extended, and the country incapable of regaining its rightful position amongst nations.”

But this is easier said than done, given that India’s businessmen have always operated like this. The question is how can this change? Kay has a possible answer in his book Other People’s Money, where he suggests that the United States went from strength to strength after the links between finance and business were loosened.

As he writes: “While the ‘robber barons’ were both financers and businessmen, the leading industrialists of the first half of the twentieth century – men such as Alfred Sloan of General Motors and Harry McGowan of ICI – were primarily businessmen. Their skill was in developing the systems and cadre of professional managers needed to run a modern corporation.”

This is possible if banks go after corporates defaulting on loans with great zeal, which they currently lack. Further, a new class of capitalists needs to flourish.
The Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a recent meeting with India’s biggest businessmen asked them to increase their risk taking appetite. As the president of the Confederation of Indian Industry, a business lobby, told the media after the meeting with Modi: “Prime Minister has said that industry must take risk and increase investments…we must go out and invest.”

The trouble is India’s incumbent businessmen are not the risk taking type. As Dipankar Gupta wrote in a recent column in The Times of India: “Till the 1980s Indian businesses were shielded from foreign competition, and they returned this favour by not introducing a single innovation above street-corner jugaad…Even after liberalisation came to India in the 1990s, this risk aversion among Indian capitalists stayed firm and remained protected by a friendly state. This can best be seen in the advocacy and implementation of the current Public Private Partnership (PPP) model.”

Hence, expecting such businessmen to suddenly start taking risk is a tad absurd. That ain’t happening. So what is the way out? As I said earlier, India needs a new class of capitalists. And for that to happen, as Rajan said the other day, it is important “to improve regulation by focusing on what is absolutely necessary to create a sound business environment.”
The column originally appeared in The Daily Reckoning on Sep 22, 2015