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Wednesday, January 07, 2009
The First Sign You're In Trouble

Reading this article on an author who lost a small fortune in the Bernie Madoff scandal, this popped out at me:

I often asked Richard, the head of our feeder fund, how Madoff made such consistently good returns. Although Richard tried to explain it to me, it was clear he didn't know, either, because I'd leave our meetings still unable to explain to anyone else how it worked.

Years ago, I partnered with another real estate guy to make mortgage loans on apartment complexes. We had one lender who had two different loan officers whom I'll call Steve and Sally. Steve was a big picture guy, the sort of person you'd put up to give a speech on the philosophy of lending. Sally was the nuts and bolts person.

As it happened their skills complemented each other, so they should have worked well together. But their company decided to put them in competition for loans, and my partner and I were supposed to choose one of them.

Well, you can probably guess the problem. My partner, who's a great talker, wanted to go with Steve, while I wanted to go with Sally. Being an accommodating guy I went along with the choice of Steve for a few weeks.

But there was a problem. I would call Steve with a nuts and bolts problem; how do I do X. Steve would launch into a 15 minute discourse on X and how it related to Y, at the end of which I often felt like I knew less than when we started. So I started suggesting to my partner that we go back to Sally. He resisted. So I tried to get the loans done through Steve, with the result that one of them got completely mangled in underwriting, despite the fact that I had previously confirmed the analysis with Steve. It cost us a pretty good commission, and I was able to convince my partner to switch our business back to Sally.

Moral of the story: If somebody can't explain something to you, it's probably because they don't understand it themselves. And if they don't understand it themselves, why are you relying on them to make major financial decisions that will affect you?
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