Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Enigma of Martin Armstrong (revisited)

Martin Armstrong's name is surfacing once again, as cyclically recurrent as perhaps predicted by his theories. One would be forgiven for possibly attributing this to the recent revelation that another Ponzi (Mr Madoff's) was surpassed that of his own. Or it might be that people were having second thoughts on the veracity of his theories given the state of the financial system and the bucking of the asset-price destruction trend by Gold, much the same way the Hebrews turned to golden calfs after dessicating in the desert for a while. Or it might be that Mr Armstrong has been writing again, (though this time from behind bars), and that it has received some traction by goldbugs, still enamoured by errrr ummm that about him they find attractive. Whatever the reality, Mr Armstrong is the nexus between them, and so I thought it opportune to re-post (with a few editorial clean-ups) an old post from Aug 2006 entitled "The Enigma of Martin Armstrong".

Anyone with anything to add (for the Record) on the specifics of PEI, it's trading, Japanese Repair Bonds, Cresvale, Marty's affiliation with Magnum "scion" Dion Friedland, should feel welcome and encouraged to do so here. Read on....


Monday, August 21, 2006

The Enigma of Martin Armstrong


Some memories fade, but are never entirely forgotten. The same holds true for certain personalities, particularly the bizarrre and eccentric. One such notorious individual is Martin Armstrong a.k.a. Princeton Economics a.k.a. self-professed expert in the history of money and things gold, and in keeping true to my theme, of things Japanese. He was accused of a large Ponzi fraud, of hiding the alleged spoils, and of being the purveyor of the notoriously unvaluable "Cresvale Bonds" that besotted Japanese corporate investors and populated their portfolios, much to their eventual chagrin. Coincidentally, as a result of some inexplicable synchronicity, I was wondering only a few weeks ago what's become of Mr Armstrong and was preparing a post to that affect, so it is timely coincidence indeed that, after languishing for six-and-a-half years in a Manhattan jail cell, he finally pleaded guilty to charges of "fraud" on Thursday, August 17th 2006.

For those unfamiliar, or too merely too young to know, Martin Armstrong was a confidence trickster, if not an outright fraudster for which he was accused. Martin Armstrong was also a Bad trader. A very VERY Bad (note upper case "B") and inept trader. And it is reasonably certain Martin Armstrong committed fraud to cover up his very bad trades. And then he committed more trades in an attempt to cover up his fraud on a hope and prayer all would eventually come good. Most of these were in Nikkei and in Gold. Contrary to the laughable ineptitude with which he implemented his "strategies", by most accounts he was smooth, suave and authoritative, in a way that encouraged people to entrust to him their money. Which he then duly lost. Many many hundreds of millions of US dollars. Perhaps billions of US dollars, but we don't know precisely because Mr Armstrong has not spoken other than (until this week) to deny his accused. The official court dockets (available on-line) from his 1999 indictment in the Manhattan district of US Federal Court read like a Shakespearean comedy. The more he traded, the more he lost. So much and so bad were his trades that his colleagues, and brokers mercilessly joked about it behind his back. He was, according to the same court docket, so consistently wrong-footed in his punts that he would have done far better flipping a coin to decide whether or not to be long or short. Or use the infamous "Ask the 8-Ball" Method. Or consult Nancy Reagan's financial astrologer, or even seek the advice of Anatole Kaletsky. Anything but use his own judgement.

Though his company, Princeton Economics, had head offices in the US, he traded from Tokyo in an office overlooking the gardens of the Imperial Palace. For Japan had a special place in his scheme. You see, ironically, the Japanese too, in undertaking their own form of financial-speculation-gone-awry known as Zaitech, had lost billions in late 80's and early 90's on dubiously-thought-out wrong-footed speculation and stock-market investment. Like Martin Armstrong, shell-shocked by large lossess, they were too ashamed and/or embarrassed to tell their shareholders that they had punted wrongly, or in UK football vernacular, scored the financial equivalent of an "own-goal". Not willing to come clean, they found themselves with a serious problem and yearned for a clever and tidy solution that would absolve them of the thing they feared most, which was NOT the losing of the money itself, but accepting responsibility for it, a dilemma not unlike that faced by I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Enter Martin Armstrong and the almost forgotten Cresvale Securities. He too had a problem since his golden-tongued investment plans, proved rather less robust than hoped [and promised] and resulted in large trading losses for his clients. It seems from the prosecution's accusations that he was able to continue his scheme (until this point) and make payments to the clients who redeemed by using the proceeds from new investors. This, however was proving more difficult as losses mounted, and so he desperately needed new clients. Big clients. Well-heeled clients who wouldn't be asking for their money back any time soon. Such as money from the trust of someone deceased. Better yet, a dead-pet trust!!. Or even better: a Japanese corporate client that themselves had a big dirty secret to hide.

And so they found each other: the companies, like an inveterate gambler, desperate for an investment saviour who with promises of high returns - would, over time, regain their previous losses, rescuing them from certain the humiliation and shame that they most dreaded (not to mention a demotion to the Corporate Travel Office, or Janitorial Services Dept.) and Armstrong, now with a fresh load of clients, and more importantly, their cash. In between them stood Cresvale Japan, the securities firm who brought them together, gave legitamacy to both their pursuits, and took nice fees out of the middle in the process, and in so doing torpedoed themselves out of existence.

The scheme ( I am conjecturing here) worked something like this: Japanese Corporate 'Y' perhaps had lost $100,000,000 speculating through a subsidiary, selling say Nikkei Put Options or buying boatloads of overvalued shares after consulting with Madame Inoue's Buddhist toad (tip: this is one of my favorite posts!!). They were able to hide this financial pustule for a while by playing "pass the parcel". perhaps between offshore subsidiaries with different year-ends. Thus their consolidated accounts still showed these losses as assets at their full value on their balance sheets. So Armstrong/Cresvale proposed they swap $50,000,000 of new money for a "repair bond" with a maturity value equal to the full $150,000,000 ($100mm of losses + $50mm of new money) and then let Magic Martin do his thing. Here, they might have been sweet-talked, or they might have seen it more cynically as a win-win for If things went right, they would make their money back and everyone wins. If something went wrong, well they can blame the investment losses on Armstrong, call it fraud, and take write-offs, without having to take responsibility in the first instance. (note: this is sketch of the essence, not the actual details).

This is all interesting, but what really fascinated ME about this story is that in the mid-90s, certain un-named American value investors had eyed a number of Japanese companies that they believed "cheap" because they seemed to have large amounts of un-specified cash & marketable securities reported on their balance sheets, relative to their now-diminished market capitalizations. In some cases these balances were in excess of the firm's entire market capitalization. Many reasons were put forth explaining the phenomena such as: "empire building"; "small-float and closely-held"; "saving for a rainy day"; "deflation"; "management conservativeness"; "investor pessimism"; "adverse taxes upon large distributions"; "legal inability to conduct share buy-backs" etc. All these seemed somewhat plausible. Conspicuous by its absence, except as speculated by the most hardened, battle weary cynical gaijin observers was: "because it doesn't exist".

But clearly some people HAD to know about their losses. For other foreign banks (Paribas, Lehman, etc.) were in the so-called "repair bond" business. Other financial institutions had been counterparties to their sales of embedded Nikkei Put options. And many of the companies themselves were household names. Maybe their businesses were not as fraudulent as Armstrong's, but nonetheless their audited accounts and subsequent actions foraying into esoteric transactions were meant to deceive shareholders by masking losses and allowing them be amortized over many years.

Since I am here, writing this, readers must suspect that none of these things went according to plan. When the Armstrong fraud broke, many of the guilty Japanese Corporates had to come clean. Sort of. They claimed they were victims of fraud (and perhaps some truly were unsuspecting purchasers of Cresvale Bonds), but the "repair Bond" concept and angle was often lost on most external observers. Yakult Honsha (TSE#2267) was said to have $1bn of losses alone from their Armstron-relatedg assiociation, as well as engineering firm Chudenko (#1941); specialty chemcial maker Gun-Ei Co. (#4229) pharma co's. Kissei (#4547), and Towa Pharm (#4553), machine-tool giant Amada Corp (#6113), pneumatic specialist SMC (#6273), eletronic parts mfgr Alps Electric (#6770) advertising agency Asatsu (#9747), office furniture maker Itoki Crebio (#7972) and more than 50 other firms were deemed to be "stung" in the Ponzi's unraveling. Yakult's losses were apparently so big that they couldn't blame Armstrong for all of them with a straight face, but many other co.s did, and [perhaps as planned] were "absolved" of culpability for their original sins.

The epilogue was that Armstrong, accused of Fraud, sat in jail for contempt of court, and was not brought forth to trial for his alleged failure to turnover evidence and in particular, to tell authorities the whereabouts of $15mm of gold and silver coins and bronze statues he'd reputedly squirreled away. It was the longest such languishment for contempt in United States history. All the while, he's claimed that he was innocent of the fraud itself. I make no judgement here, but it seems likely from the court documents and testimony of accused accomplices at HSBC he that committed fraud in the form of the ponzi that used new proceeds to pay old losses. His brokers, Republic Bank, (now the behemoth HSBC) coughed up nearly USD$600mm for their part in not alerting authorities to the potential wrong-doing, which court documents allege, they were well aware. That said, a good portion of the suspected so-called "losses were not "embezzlement" or "theft", per se, as the newspapers and Japanese Corporates would have readers believe, but out-and-out ineptitude and shitty trading. The subsequent deceit and using proceeds of one investor to pay another, and, well, we know what that is called.

His reversal and decision to enter a guilty plea may reflect that Armstrong the man met Armstrong the fraudster. Or it may reflect Armstrong's understanding that having spent six years in jail, an admission of guilt might allow him to squeeze a few years of freedom in his (no pun intended) "Golden Years".

For investors, the only the protection they can afford themselves is doing appropriate due diligence and being highly skeptical of anything that purports to be "too good to be true", or turn base metals or paper into errrrr ummm gold.

24 comments:

theodore said...

Very interesting post, in Frank Partnoy's book FIASCO, Morgan Stanley was doing something similar. Do you know how those got unwound?

A lot of Chinese net-nets have the same problem, I simply don't believe the cash exists.

akikana said...

"Do you know how those got unwound?"

Most, in Japan, don't/didn't unless the company itself went under. Then they'd clear up again on the outgoing trade too. Plenty of these bonds sit in accrual accounted held to maturity accounts...they'll drop off in ten/twenty or even fifty years time...at par.

Jesse said...

Excellent post, and I thank you for it.

Anonymous said...

I had not thought of poor Marty rotting away in jail for quite some time. I met him a couple of times and found him intelligent and very convincing. His historical work on coins and gold, I thought was very good. If he was a bad trader...he joins a long list of very illustrious names including Gartman, Zweig, Russel, Prechter and a host of names at the major Wall Street firms, too numerous to name. Good luck Marty

"Cassandra" said...

Akikana - thnx. Calls to readers for detailed info of this kind has never been requited, and it really demands a definitive epitath.

Jesse- :}

Anonymous 2:17 - Madoff was smooth intelligent and convincing too. He used many plausible lines about black boxes (e.g. Investors Feel better with the pilot is in the plane etc.). I do not believe in the conspiracy theories from the survivalists when Ockham-friendly explanations abound. There is a big difference between being a talking head and fiduciary, and using one's position as a fiduciary to relieve late-comers of the their money.

Anonymous said...

First all of his clients were japanese companies and they all made off very well in this whole thing. the "repair bonds" were legal at that time in japan and they were bonds he was not an investment advisor like madoff, think about this as you stated companies like lehman did the same thing if lehman went bankrupt 10 years earlier would their ceo be in jail for being a ponzi????

"Cassandra" said...

anon 736

I must confess to not understanding your point. If you have specific information regarding how and which Japanese companies "made off very well" then please do share it.

As far as I can tell, they only made off because they got to blame ALL their zaitech losses on Martin Armstrong, for what was only partially of his doing.

To re-emphasise, the fascinating thing to me was like Enron, "The Market Knew" or sufficient participants (like in Enron - where Bankers and service providers were fully apprised of the frauds perpetrated) knew that the bevvy of cash-rich companies had holes in their balance sheets, keeping their valuations "low", en-masse.

Anonymous said...

This article was written in good faith, but is extremely misleading. Consider that this man has been in jail for 9 years without a trial. Consider that there has been virtually no media coverage of this Federal imprisonment of a US citizen without trial on "contempt of court" (!!!). The more you dig into the details surrounding his arrest, the more you realize that the true culprit here is the government, and the market losses are cover for something much bigger.

I've got a treat for you. Here's a link to a Martin Armstrong essay just released. It's 77 pages long, but it blows the lid of the governments baseless claims and fascist actions. Hasn't this recent crisis taught you guys anything about how the gov works?

http://www.kwaves.com/ItsJustTimeMartinArmstrong.pdf

-Andrew

Ishmael Malawanquix said...

Cassie,

I recall (perhaps incorrectly) that OldVet often used to post comments on your blog. If so, I wanted to mention that he has passed.
http://angrybear.blogspot.com/2009/01/in-memoriam-for-old-vet.html

"Cassandra" said...

Ishmael - thank you for that. Yes he posted often, and we exchanged views frequently offline. I have missed him, though didn't know why he'd been quiet. I will continue to miss his optimism despite an [accurately] negatively view of our unfolding predicament

212213 said...

C,

I'd be interested in your thoughts on Steel Partners plan to turn its hedge fund into a listed company due to heavy redemption requests. http://uk.reuters.com/article/marketsNewsUS/idUKN0931342120090110

goto100 said...

Probably won't interest you, but the very same title 'enigma of martin Armstrong' is up on itulip.com under the PREMIUM commentary segment - the part you can only read if you donate money to the Eric Janszen welfare fund. I won't pay for any such "services" on principle, since the authors are too far up themselves to be consistently funny. The free stuff is the best (and most honest). SO, I can't actually determine if EJ just lifted your post directly or not....

(itulip.com --look in the 'select' commentary links - if you do so, please let me know what happened!)

goto100 said...

You know, forget my last comment. It seems the EJ welfare fund is partly based on people donating to receive links to stories already available for free on the web if they know where to look....weird what folks shell out for hey?

Well, nothing is more easily parted than ... etc. ...

tooearly said...

Armstrong blog :
http://www.contrahour.com/contrahour/2009/01/martin-armstrong-the-coming-great-depression.html

Anonymous said...

Your analysis is one sided. Why did the government take away Martin's original lawyers monies? Why was there never a proper trial? Why are you such a cocky know it all?

Anonymous said...

Its important to note that the japanese corporations were the ones trying to hide losses, the laws in japan were changing so that losses that corporations had on their books were going to have to be realized or market to market rather than market to what their original investment was. Because of this martin armstrong, lehman brothers, and others were giving japanese corporations "repair bonds" with a maturity at some point in the future that brought their portfolios back to the price they paid for it, doing this allowed the japanese corporations to keep the original mark on their investment and not have to write anything down. So the majority of the losses were from the original investments, it seems the US did not understand this. The "victims" (japanese corporations) struck gold when this thing happened, hsbc paid them off any losses that martin might have had AND more importantly all the original losses that the "victims" had created for years of investments gone wrong

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Anonymous said...

"One would be forgiven for possibly attributing this to the recent revelation that another Ponzi (Mr Madoff's) was surpassed that of his own."

So you have no problems with convicting a man in this case, Martin Armstrong, without a trial as well? Maybe your curlers are wrapped a bit too tight or maybe you just have a nonchalant attitude about putting people in Federal prison, absent conclusive evidence. Either way, you are a fool.

Cassandra does Tokyo? not; Cassandra does the Nazi Party.

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Anonymous said...

The "investment" banker with the curlers and the butt hanging out of her mouth must be sleeping it off or retrenching.

Martin Armstrong – Behind the Curtain…
Martin takes us on his view “behind the curtain.”

http://economicedge.blogspot.com/

youyou said...

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Anonymous said...

It's curious how Martin's Wikipedia is edited every time we add something positive or a link to one of his new essays. The new information is always deleted within a few days, and more propaganda is added.

You NEVER hear anything in the media about him. It is ALWAYS covered up by the Government. There are those of us that aren't afraid to tell and to EXPOSE, and there are those in media that just are too frightened to print the truth. Unfortunately, the latter is the majority. Some of us don't mind taking the risk because we want to do what is right, honest and good, despite what the bullies want us to do.

This woman never seems to get her facts correct. Maybe someday she will.

Anonymous said...

First, let me say that I do not know you and have never read your material previous to this post. Neither do I know Martin Armstrong, though I have read a small amount of material about his history. From the very beginning of your article you appear extremely biased against Mr. Armstrong and use plenty of inflammatory language ( E.g., bizarre, eccentric, notorious, self-professed expert, Ponzi fraud, confidence trickster, outright fraudster, VERY BAD trader, inept, committed fraud, laughable ineptitude, etc., ad nauseum) , yet state near the end of your article "I make no judgment here"....which I must confess made me laugh! My point is that if you wish to write objectively and educate your readers, you need to clean up your own "self-professed expert" style.