Octopus: Sam Israel, the Secret Market, and Wall Street’s Wildest Con

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This is not a normal book for me to review.  The claims made by the book are fantastic, and the subject of the book, Sam Israel, would have a strong motive for self-exoneration.  But with any book, unless you have direct insight into what the book talks about, you have to interpret the book consistently, assuming the author has told the truth.  That is what I will do.

I have a saying, “It is very difficult to cheat an honest man.” Why is that so?  An honest man knows that few things come easy in life, and so if something seems too good to be true, he will avoid someone peddling something that is likely to be a scam.

But someone who thinks the world is inherently crooked is much easier to cheat, because he thinks that he will be able to outfox others trying to cheat him.  He is more vulnerable to playing an inside game that few others know about.

Sam Israel drifted into a Ponzi scheme.  He may not have intended to do so, but once you report fake results that are too good, it is difficult to ever come back to true accounting, because the assets have to earn considerably more than average in order to break even.  New money helps a lot, and that is driven by great returns, so there is the incentive to keep reporting “too good” returns.

It’s a treadmill, which is why Ponzi schemes always blow up.  In Sam Israel’s case, it led to all manner of speculative investments that an ordinary investor would never touch.  In the second half of the book, it led to dealing with a smooth-talking guy who charmed and scammed Sam Israel, convincing him that there was a conspiracy that controlled Western governments with a rigged bond market that offered incredible deals to insiders.

Now, to me, anything that seems too complicated to justify the worldview is probably not true.  What reason would a conspiracy have to hand out risk-free profits to anyone?  Governments or conspirators would pocket the money themselves, and would not let anyone else in.  But to a crooked mind that needs an easy win in order to set all things right, this is a perfect setup to separate a fool and his money (or rather, the money of his clients).

As it was, Sam Israel ran out of money and his “hedge fund” collapsed, leaving many foolish investors to mourn their losses.

One more thing: a undercurrent of the book was how they managed to co-opt the auditors.  Beware trusting small no-name auditors.

Quibbles

The book is well-written, and if you take it as fiction, it is a real page-turner.  But as truth, you are reliant on a few voices, mostly Sam Israel and his friends, to tell you what happened.  I’m reluctant to sign onto that, but I can’t fully rule it out either.

Who would benefit from this book: If you like fiction, you will like this.  If you want to look into the pathology of a Ponzi Scheme, it is good there also.  If you like reading sordid tales of greed, foolishness, and lies, you will like it.  Otherwise, avoid.  If you want to, you can buy it here: Octopus: Sam Israel, the Secret Market, and Wall Street’s Wildest Con.

Full disclosure: The publisher sent me a copy of the book for free.

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By David Merkel, CFA of Aleph Blog



About the Author

David Merkel
David J. Merkel, CFA, FSA — 2010-present, I am working on setting up my own equity asset management shop, tentatively called Aleph Investments. It is possible that I might do a joint venture with someone else if we can do more together than separately. From 2008-2010, I was the Chief Economist and Director of Research of Finacorp Securities. I did a many things for Finacorp, mainly research and analysis on a wide variety of fixed income and equity securities, and trading strategies. Until 2007, I was a senior investment analyst at Hovde Capital, responsible for analysis and valuation of investment opportunities for the FIP funds, particularly of companies in the insurance industry. I also managed the internal profit sharing and charitable endowment monies of the firm. From 2003-2007, I was a leading commentator at the investment website RealMoney.com. Back in 2003, after several years of correspondence, James Cramer invited me to write for the site, and I wrote for RealMoney on equity and bond portfolio management, macroeconomics, derivatives, quantitative strategies, insurance issues, corporate governance, etc. My specialty is looking at the interlinkages in the markets in order to understand individual markets better. I no longer contribute to RealMoney; I scaled it back because my work duties have gotten larger, and I began this blog to develop a distinct voice with a wider distribution. After three-plus year of operation, I believe I have achieved that. Prior to joining Hovde in 2003, I managed corporate bonds for Dwight Asset Management. In 1998, I joined the Mount Washington Investment Group as the Mortgage Bond and Asset Liability manager after working with Provident Mutual, AIG and Pacific Standard Life. My background as a life actuary has given me a different perspective on investing. How do you earn money without taking undue risk? How do you convey ideas about investing while showing a proper level of uncertainty on the likelihood of success? How do the various markets fit together, telling us us a broader story than any single piece? These are the themes that I will deal with in this blog. I hold bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University. In my spare time, I take care of our eight children with my wonderful wife Ruth.