Thursday, March 22, 2012

GAO Submits Interim Report on SIPC Madoff Liquidation Proceeding

In an interim report, the GAO determined that the Securities Investor Protection Corporation (SIPC) generally followed its past practices in selecting the trustee for the Bernard Madoff liquidation. SIPC maintains a file of trustee candidates from across the country, but given the anticipated complexities of the case, officials said the field of potential qualified trustees was limited. SIPC has sole discretion to appoint trustees and, wanting to act quickly, SIPC senior management considered four trustee candidates.

After three of the four candidates were eliminated for reasons including having a conflict of interest or ongoing work on a large financial firm failure, SIPC selected Irving H. Picard, who has considerable securities and trustee experience. However, SIPC has not documented a formal outreach procedure for identifying candidates for trustee and trustee’s counsel, or documented its procedures and criteria for selecting persons for particular cases, as internal control standards recommend. Having such documented procedures could allow SIPC to better assess whether it has identified an optimal pool of candidates, and to enhance the transparency of its selection decisions, stated the GAO.

The report noted that a key goal of broker-dealer liquidations is to provide customers with the securities or cash they had in their accounts. However, because the Trustee determined that amounts shown on Madoff customers’ statements reflected years of fictitious investments and profits, he chose to determine customers’ net equity using the “net investment method” (NIM), which values customer claims based on amounts invested, less amounts withdrawn. SIPC senior management and officials of the SEC, which oversees SIPC, initially agreed on the appropriateness of NIM. Over the course of 2009, however, SEC officials continued to consider alternative approaches for reimbursing customers.

Although some customers have challenged the Trustee’s use of NIM, two courts have held that the Trustee’s approach is consistent with the law and with past cases, with both courts indicating that using the values shown on customers’ final statements would effectively sanction the Madoff fraud and produce “absurd” results. In November 2009, SEC commissioners voted to support the use of NIM, but with an adjustment for inflation, in an approach known as the “constant dollar” method. However, after an SEC official’s conflict of interest was made public in February 2011, the SEC Chairman directed SEC staff to review whether the commission should revote on the constant dollar approach. The matter is currently pending.

As of October 2011, costs of the Madoff liquidation reached more than $450 million, and the Trustee estimates the total costs will exceed $1 billion by 2014. Legal costs, which include costs for the Trustee and the trustee’s counsel, are the largest category. While the estimated total cost for the Madoff liquidation is double the total for all completed SIPC cases to date, the Trustee, SIPC, and SEC note that the costs reflect the unprecedented size, duration, and complexity of the Madoff fraud. SIPC senior management also said the liquidation costs are justified, as litigation the trustee has pursued has produced $8.7 billion in recoveries for customers to date.

Through various reports, court filings, and a website, the Trustee has disclosed information about the status of the liquidation. SIPC senior management, SEC officials, and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court have concluded that the Trustee’s disclosures sufficiently address the requirements for disclosure under the Bankruptcy Code and the Securities Investor Protection Act.

The GAO recommended that the SEC should advise SIPC to (1) document its procedures for identifying candidates for trustee or trustee’s counsel, and in so doing, to assess whether additional outreach efforts should be incorporated, and (2) document a process and criteria for appointment of a trustee and trustee’s counsel. SEC and SIPC concurred with the recommendations.