Add the name Bernard Madoff to the pantheon of big-time thieves. The legendary billionaire hedge fund manager, "the man with the Midas touch," now stands accused of running a massive Ponzi scheme, perhaps the largest in history. Year after year, his investors -- somehow, someway, in good times and bad -- received a consistent, steady return on their investments. If the accusations against him hold up, Madoff's modus operandi would have embarrassed Carlo Ponzi.
Ponzi, in the early 1900s, defrauded investors by paying out money to old investors -- not through legitimate earnings, but through the entry money of new suckers. The music, of course, stopped -- as it always does -- and the "investments" collapsed, leaving a bunch of people angry and broke.
To many, the Madoffs of the world confirm this "truism": the rich get rich not through hard work, risk-taking or crafty assumptions about the future. No, the rich get rich the old fashioned way: They steal. They profit through inside information, use their clubby network of eyes and ears, get a heads-up when storm clouds appear, and plunder the unsophisticated, and thus cleverly dodge the common misfortunes suffered by the "little guy."
But the overwhelming majority of the soon-to-be-a-lot-less-than-super-rich people did not deal with Madoff. They lost a lot of money while the guardian angels perched on their shoulders let it happen.
Consider the declining fortunes of some of these immune-from-disaster elites:
Indian brothers Anil and Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Capital lost a combined $60.7 billion. Anil dropped $32.5 billion -- perhaps making him, worldwide, the biggest loser in today's downturn.
Lakshmi Mittal of Mittal Steel -- whose $50 billion net worth last year made him the richest man in India and the fourth-richest in the world -- has lost $30.5 billion, sending his net worth plummeting down to about $20 billion.
Sumner Redstone is CEO of National Amusements, one of the largest entertainment conglomerates, which owns Viacom, CBS and all their subsidiaries, among others. His net worth -- so far -- has declined by more than 80 percent. Forbes, three months ago, placed his net worth at more than $5 billion. Facing a margin call (lenders wanting their money back), Redstone unloaded, fire-sale-like, hundreds of millions in stock to pay it off.
The Google guys, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, are down $12.1 billion this year -- nearly half their net worth.