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Madoff Losses May Be Less Than Expected

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

When you taken into account the Ambrosinos and Madoff's many other victims, how much money are we really talking about here, total? Well, we asked NPR's Robert Smith to do the math.

ROBERT SMITH: Back in December, when Madoff confessed to his sons that the family investment business was a fraud, he estimated the loss at $50 billion. It was such a nice, round sum that few reporters or headline writers dared to question it. Fifty bill - it got so the phrase just flowed off the tongue, $50 billion Ponzi scheme. But we now understand that number was never anything more than an estimate. It was both too low and too high. I'll explain.

When federal prosecutors rounded up all the investment statements that Madoff sent out to his clients in November, they came up with a much higher figure, $64.8 billion. That's what Madoff's victims thought they had. It was real to them. But Madoff hadn't made any investments with the money he was taking in for more than 13 years.

So the 64 billion includes years of investments returns that never existed. So let's say you strip away the fake returns, how much cash did people actually hand over to this man? We know Madoff was famous for paying a steady 12 percent a year. So let's roll back the investment clock those 13 years. All of a sudden, that fake 64 billion could've started out as little as $14 billion.

It's a simplification, since money was always flowing in and out of Madoff's office. But a federal investigator told the AP that their estimate was between 10 and $17 billion, which, thanks to Madoff's bragging, now seems a little puny - as long as it wasn't your money.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Robert Smith is a host for NPR's Planet Money where he tells stories about how the global economy is affecting our lives.