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Type of financial fraud
1920 photo of Charles Ponzi, the namesake of the scheme, while still working as a businessman in his office in Boston
A Ponzi scheme (, Italian: ['pontsi]; also a Ponzi game) is a form of fraud that lures investors and pays profits to earlier investors with funds from more recent investors. The scheme leads victims to believe that profits are coming from legitimate business activity (e.g. product sales and/or successful investments), and they remain unaware that other investors are the source of funds. A Ponzi scheme can maintain the illusion of a sustainable business as long as new investors contribute new funds, and as long as most of the investors do not demand full repayment and still believe in the non-existent assets they are purported to own.
Some of the first recorded incidents to meet the modern definition of Ponzi scheme were carried out from 1869 to 1872 by Adele Spitzeder in Germany and by Sarah Howe in the United States in the 1880s through the "Ladies' Deposit". Howe offered a solely female clientele an 8% monthly interest rate, and then stole the money that the women had invested. She was eventually discovered and served three years in prison. The Ponzi scheme was also previously described in novels; Charles Dickens' 1844 novel Martin Chuzzlewit and his 1857 novel Little Dorrit both feature such a scheme.
In the 1920s, Charles Ponzi carried out this scheme and became well-known throughout the United States because of the huge amount of money that he took in. His original scheme was based on the legitimate arbitrage of international reply coupons for postage stamps, but he soon began diverting new investors' money to make payments to earlier investors and to himself. Unlike earlier, similar schemes, Ponzi's gained considerable press coverage both within the United States and internationally both while it was being perpetrated and after it collapsed – this notoriety eventually led to the type of scheme being named after him.
Typically, Ponzi schemes require an initial investment and promise above-average returns. They use vague verbal guises such as "hedgefutures trading", "high-yield investment programs", or "offshore investment" to describe their income strategy. It is common for the operator to take advantage of a lack of investor knowledge or competence, or sometimes claim to use a proprietary, secret investment strategy to avoid giving information about the scheme.
The basic premise of a Ponzi scheme is "to rob Peter to pay Paul". Initially, the operator pays high returns to attract investors and entice current investors to invest more money. When other investors begin to participate, a cascade effect begins. The schemer pays a "return" to initial investors from the investments of new participants, rather than from genuine profits.
Often, high returns encourage investors to leave their money in the scheme, so that the operator does not actually have to pay very much to investors. The operator simply sends statements showing how much they have earned, which maintains the deception that the scheme is an investment with high returns. Investors within a Ponzi scheme may even face difficulties when trying to get their money out of the investment.
Operators also try to minimize withdrawals by offering new plans to investors where money cannot be withdrawn for a certain period of time in exchange for higher returns. The operator sees new cash flows as investors cannot transfer money. If a few investors do wish to withdraw their money in accordance with the terms allowed, their requests are usually promptly processed, which gives the illusion to all other investors that the fund is solvent and financially sound.
Ponzi schemes sometimes begin as legitimate investment vehicles, such as hedge funds that can easily degenerate into a Ponzi-type scheme if they unexpectedly lose money or fail to legitimately earn the returns expected. The operators fabricate false returns or produce fraudulent audit reports instead of admitting their failure to meet expectations, and the operation is then considered a Ponzi scheme.
A wide variety of investment vehicles and strategies, typically legitimate, have become the basis of Ponzi schemes. For instance, Allen Stanford used bank certificates of deposit to defraud tens of thousands of people. Certificates of deposit are usually low-risk and insured instruments, but the Stanford certificates of deposit were fraudulent.
High investment returns with little or no risk. Every investment carries some degree of risk, and investments yielding higher returns typically involve more risk. Any "guaranteed" investment opportunity is often considered suspicious.
Overly consistent returns. Investment values tend to go up and down over time, especially those offering potentially high returns. An investment that continues to generate regular positive returns regardless of overall market conditions is considered suspicious.
Unregistered investments. Ponzi schemes typically involve investments that have not been registered with the SEC or with state regulators. Registration is important because it provides investors with access to key information about the company's management, products, services, and finances.
Unlicensed sellers. Federal and state securities laws require that investment professionals and their firms be licensed or registered. Most Ponzi schemes involve unlicensed individuals or unregistered firms, the few exceptions usually being the aforementioned investment vehicles that started out as legitimate operations but failed to earn the expected returns.
Secretive or complex strategies. Investments that cannot be understood or do not give complete information.
Issues with paperwork. Excuses are given regarding why clients cannot review information in writing about an investment. Also, account statement errors and inconsistencies are frequently signs that funds are not being invested as promised.
Difficulty receiving payments. Clients have failures to receive a payment or have difficulty cashing out their investments. Ponzi scheme promoters routinely encourage participants to "roll over" investments and sometimes promise even higher returns on the amount rolled over.
Unraveling of a Ponzi scheme
Theoretically it is not impossible at least for certain entities operating as Ponzi scheme to ultimately "succeed" financially, at least so long as a Ponzi scheme was not what the promoters were initially intending to operate. For example, a failing hedge fund reporting fraudulent returns could conceivably "make good" its reported numbers, for example by making a successful high-risk investment. Moreover if the operators of such a scheme are facing the likelihood of imminent collapse accompanied by criminal charges, they may see little additional "risk" to themselves in attempting cover their tracks by engaging in further illegal acts to try and make good the shortfall (for example, by engaging in insider trading). Especially with lightly-regulated and monitored investment vehicles like hedge funds, in the absence of a whistleblower and/or accompanying illegal acts any fraudulent content in reports is often difficult to detect unless and until the investment vehicles ultimately collapse.
Typically, however, if a Ponzi scheme is not stopped by authorities it usually falls apart for one or more of the following reasons:
The operator vanishes, taking all the remaining investment money. Promoters who intend to abscond often attempt to do so as returns due to be paid are about to exceed new investments, as this is when the investment capital available will be at its maximum.
Since the scheme requires a continual stream of investments to fund higher returns, if the number of new investors slows down, the scheme collapses as the operator can no longer pay the promised returns (the higher the returns, the greater the risk of the Ponzi scheme collapsing). Such liquidity crises often trigger panics, as more people start asking for their money, similar to a bank run.
External market forces, such as a sharp decline in the economy, can often hasten the collapse of a Ponzi scheme (for example, the Madoff investment scandal during the market downturn of 2008), since they often cause many investors to attempt to withdraw part or all of their funds sooner than they had intended.
Actual losses are extremely difficult to calculate. The amounts that investors thought they had were never attainable in the first place. The wide gap between "money in" and "fictitious gains" make it virtually impossible to know how much was lost in any Ponzi scheme.
A pyramid scheme is a form of fraud similar in some ways to a Ponzi scheme, relying as it does on a mistaken belief in a nonexistent financial reality, including the hope of an extremely high rate of return. However, several characteristics distinguish these schemes from Ponzi schemes:
In a Ponzi scheme, the schemer acts as a "hub" for the victims, interacting with all of them directly. In a pyramid scheme, those who recruit additional participants benefit directly. Failure to recruit typically means no investment return.
A Ponzi scheme claims to rely on some esoteric investment approach, and often attracts well-to-do investors, whereas pyramid schemes explicitly claim that new money will be the source of payout for the initial investments.
A pyramid scheme typically collapses much faster because it requires exponential increases in participants to sustain it. By contrast, Ponzi schemes can survive (at least in the short-term) simply by persuading most existing participants to reinvest their money, with a relatively small number of new participants.
In most economic bubbles, there is no single person or group misrepresenting the intrinsic value. A common exception is a pump and dump scheme (typically involving buyers and holders of thinly-traded stocks), which has much more in common with a Ponzi scheme compared to other types of bubbles.
Ponzi schemes typically result in criminal charges when authorities discover them, but other than pump and dump schemes, economic bubbles do not typically involve unlawful activity, or even bad faith on the part of any participant. Laws are only broken if someone perpetuates the bubble by knowingly and deliberately misrepresenting facts to inflate the value of an item (as with a pump and dump scheme). Even when this occurs, wrongdoing (and especially criminal activity) is often much more difficult to prove in court compared to a Ponzi scheme. Therefore, the collapse of an economic bubble rarely results in criminal charges (which require proof beyond a reasonable doubt to secure a conviction) and, even when charges are pursued, they are often against corporations, which can be easier to pursue in court compared to charges against people but also can only result in fines as opposed to jail time. The more commonly-pursued legal recourse in situations where someone suspects an economic bubble is the result of nefarious activity is to sue for damages in civil court, where the standard of proof is only balance of probabilities and where the plaintiff need not demonstrate mens rea.
In some jurisdictions[which?], following the collapse of a Ponzi scheme, even the "innocent" beneficiaries are liable to repay any gains for distribution to the victims. In this context, "innocent" beneficiaries can include anyone who unwittingly profited without being aware of the fraudulent nature of the scheme, and even charities to which perpetrators often give to relatively generously while a scheme is in operation in an effort to enhance their own profile and thereby "profit" from the resulting positive media coverage. This typically does not happen in the case of an economic bubble, especially if nobody can prove the bubble was caused by anyone acting in bad faith, moreover a person whose own participation in an economic bubble is not particularly notable is not likely to enhance participation in the bubble and thus personally profit by donating to charity.
Items traded in an economic bubble are much more likely to have an intrinsic value that is worth a substantial proportion of the market price. Therefore, following collapse of an economic bubble (especially one in a commodity such as real estate) the items affected will often retain some value, whereas an investment that is part of a Ponzi scheme will typically be worthless (or very close to worthless). On the other hand, it is much easier to obtain financing for many items that are the frequent subject of bubbles. If an investor trading on margin or borrowing to finance investments becomes the victim of a bubble, he or she can still lose all (or a very substantial portion) of his or her investment capital, or even be liable for losses in excess of the original capital investment.
A Ponzi scheme which ultimately terminates with the operator absconding is similar to an exit scam. The main difference is that an exit scam does not involve any sort of investment vehicle with the accompanying promised returns. Instead, exit scammers either accept payment for product which they never ship (usually after gaining a reputation for reliably shipping product) or steal funds held in escrow on behalf of third parties (the latter often involves the operators of illegal darknet markets that facilitate the sale of illicit goods and services).
Society and culture
Weightlifters frequently use the term Ponzi in reference to a scheme of strength training in which athletes perform exercises with progressively less weight (also known as drop-sets) to maximize muscle tension. Such exercises are intended to invoke imagery of a pyramid, as the weightlifter gradually reduces the size of their weight stack in the same way that a pyramid grows upwards. This usage of Ponzi conflates the term with a pyramid scheme, a related form of fraud.
^Garcia-Pallares, Jesus; Izquierdo, Mikel (April 2011). "Strategies to optimize concurrent training of strength and aerobic fitness for rowing and canoeing". Sports Medicine. 41 (4): 329. doi:10.2165/11539690-000000000-00000.
Dunn, Donald (2004). Ponzi: The Incredible True Story of the King of Financial Cons (Library of Larceny) (Paperback). New York: Broadway. ISBN0-7679-1499-6.
Frankel, Tamar (2012). The Ponzi Scheme Puzzle: A History and Analysis of Con Artists and Victims. USA: Oxford University Press. ISBN0199926611.
Schneps, Leila & Colmez, Coralie (2013). Math on trial. How numbers get used and abused in the courtroom. Basic Books. ISBN978-0-465-03292-1.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link) (Eighth chapter: "Math error number 8: underestimation. The case of Charles Ponzi: American dream, American scheme").