Sir Allen Stanford was, at his height, valued in the billions. His money financed an empire of sporting pursuits and tournaments, ranging from golf, tennis, football and, most notably of all, that archaic wonder called cricket. And, like those before him, he made a killing on the vast network of offshore banking assets, run in such sunny spots of global finance as Antigua. There was much money to be made, and it was made on the cheap.
Stanford’s financial behaviour was, however, of such a nature as even to worry regulators at a time when laissez faire fundamentalism prevailed. The American SEC has stepped up to the podium, accusing Stanford of a fraud worth £5.6 billion, while the US Justice Department is launching its own investigation into the Texan’s money affairs. After some searching, an initially elusive Stanford has been served with papers in Fredericksburg, Virginia.
In a nutshell, the SEC alleges that a fraudulent scheme was enacted, in which the Stanford Group sold some ‘$8 billion of self-styled “certificates of deposits” promising high return rates that exceed those available through true certificates of deposits offered by traditional banks.’ Returns were falsely advertised – identical percentages of 15.71 per cent, for instance, are recorded for both 1995 and 1996 from what is termed a ‘global diversified’ portfolio of assets. Such figures, even by the standards of that group, were inventive.
It would seem that Stanford had paid homage to the Madoff techniques of employing the services of small auditing firms to monitor what was, effectively, a Ponzi scheme. Regulation was skimpy at best; returns were advertised as regular and stable. Of greater concern was to what end these frauds were perpetrated: a money laundering link to the Mexico Gulf group, a drug cartel, has been alleged by the FBI.
Despite regulatory slackness, anyone with an iota of investment sense would have steered clear of the unreliable Stanford, who had been given the odd slap on the wrist for financial regularities over the last fifteen years. Chairman of the Domestic Policy Subcommittee in the US House of Representatives, Dennis Kucinich, claimed that the billionaire had been under much scrutiny for at least the last two years, a process which was accelerated after the Madoff revelations. There were ‘smoke signals’, but few were taking any notice from the distant hill they were being fanned from. A Miami broker, Charles Hazlett, got the jitters with Stanford’s superlative offshore empire as early as 2003. Hazlett’s warnings were, as so much else in an age of profligacy, ignored by regulators governed by the spirit of a nihilistic Gecko rather than measured prudence.
Antiguan financial regulators were happy to let any inconsistencies that might have emerged from an audit of Stanford’s activities go unnoticed. The investigation itself was suspiciously inadequate. His knighthood was bestowed upon him by the good offices of Antigua, not the royal grace of Queen Elizabeth.
Stanford is perhaps most known for his involvement in cricket. He promised a cricket arcadia, equipped with delights to rival that of the Indian Premier League. Cricket, in the vision of both Stanford and visionaries on the Subcontinent, would pinch a few tips from Super Bowl and baseball, paying elite players inordinate amounts for shorter times of play. Girls with pompoms, cheering on the sideline, would come with the package. Towards that end, the Stanford Superstars were created, a side which beat the English team in Antigua last November. Winnings for the players, at least by conventional cricket standards, were enormous – some £700,000 each.
Unfortunately for English cricket, ignorance was blissful and, it would seem, golden. Money poured into the game, and few questions were asked. The West Indians, through a Stanford-funded cricket league on home soil, also stood to profit – money would be pouring into a sport that was losing ground to rival sporting codes.
Antigua, effectively Stanford’s economic fiefdom, and cricket may be the biggest casualties of this debacle, but other sporting representatives will also have reason to grieve. Newcastle United striker Michael Owen may well be out of pocket to the tune of £500,000, the touted value of sponsorships that were set to go his way.
The Economist speculates that Stanford is the classic product of the bursting economic bubble – fraud happily keeps company with diminished financial returns and sinking markets. But what is worse is that such individuals retain their sense of credibility, even after investigations are made and fines imposed. Stanford always marketed himself as an indulgent saviour, a Gecko with a conscience despite being under heavy clouds of suspicion. But at the end of the day, the temptation to doctor books and deceive customers proved irresistible.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org