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Monday, January 10, 2011

Ponzi schemes and the case of Albania

Pyramid schemes are notorious for devastating the lives of individuals and their finances. Pyramid schemes have been the root of economic problems in many countries around the world. Countries in a state of political and economic transition are especially affected in a larger scale from these types of schemes. Albania, Colombia, Russia, and Romania are a few examples where the schemes operated on a national scale. In Albania, the country became a precedent of harm caused by these schemes and created a destructive environment of anarchy and economic disparity. The Central Bank of Albania was not willing to control commercial banks and the corruption of the government led to the collapse of socio-economic system and a riot in Albania. The lack of adherence to constitutional law and ethics by these actors and the absence of regulatory functions within the economic and legislative system caused the collapse of political and economic stability in Albania.
According to the United States Security Exchange Commission, Ponzi schemes are a type of illegal financial pyramids that market false promises of high-rate returns. Named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian immigrant who, in 1920, believed he could take advantage of the foreigner currency by selling mail coupons bought in Spain and other countries. He promised his clients that we would give them 50% return in just 90 days and claimed that he himself made 400% in return from the money that he invested. His schemes amounted to a total 10 million dollars and more than 10,000 innocent investors. The scheme ultimately collapses once it has reached one of two stages: If the scheme is no longer able to support the expected rate of returns to investors, or if the number of recruited investors becomes insufficient to allow additional financial resources to support returns. Ponzi schemes are thus known as a strategy where individuals or companies pay out funds to the other party by borrowing funds from others. (Knutson, 1997).
The 1920’s are known for Ponzi schemes, but historically have been used prior to this period. France is known for having this type of scheme since 1719, but were not as sophisticated as they are today (Bhattacharya, 1998). The ideology behind these Ponzi schemes A.K.A. pyramid schemes is simple and complicated at the same time. The dummy organization operates in two main concepts of investors, Informed and Uninformed. The Informed investors are the ones that are inside the scheme, the ones that keep track of accounts and balances within the scheme. Uninformed investors are the general public who has no information about what is really going on but the positive information that is provided to them by the informed investors. The distinguished feature of the Pyramid schemes is that old “prey” is paid back with the funds received from the new “pray”. When the sources for new recruiters are no longer found, the pyramid collapses (Scharm et al, 1999)

Most of the empirical support about Ponzi schemes is based on the rational choice theory, that humans are capable of making rational choices whether or not to be involved in such a crime or deviance. In Ponzi schemes both victims and offenders made the decision to invest in these schemes based on seemingly rational thought processes (Friedrich, 2010). Victims invest money after being assured that they will receive a high rate in return by a member of the scheme through charismatic manipulation of unrealistically optimistic promises.
The pyramid schemes that operated in Albania appeared to be a real opportunity for investments. Despite the modest size, Albania caught world’s attention when in 1997 its economy and society collapsed. Just few years after the communist system broke down in 1990, Albania for the first time was open to the free market and by 1993, and it was the only country in Central and Eastern Europe to meet every criteria of IMF (International Monetary Fund). From 1993-96 official figures indicated that the GDP increased, inflation was contained and unemployment considerably decreased. These tendencies could be celebrated until the shock of 1997. Ponzi schemes have been operating in the country and were increasing in the large scale. When the schemes collapsed, they dragged Albania within weeks into anarchy, violence, plundering and food shortages (Bezemer, 2001). While the IMF was trying to maintain control of the fiscal system, the rest of the world viewed the collapse of the Albanian economy as merely a result of the “Albanians mistaken motion of capitalism” (Wall Street Journal, 1997).
Ponzi schemes in Albania were no coincidence, but they were unintentionally stimulated by the combination of monetary policy restrictions, deficient market regulation, large capital inflows and a weak government. A few years after transitioning out of communism, Albania still had the lowest standard of living in Europe. Waves of poverty introduced immigration, more than the third of the labor was unemployed and inflation peaked 45% monthly in August 1992. Agriculture, the country's primary source of economy, completely privatized together with industries. By the end of 1992 macroeconomic conditions stabilized which was a hope for investors in Albania. Private businesses in capital increased from 398 in 1991 to 8.321 in December 1992. The country's GDP rose dramatically, official unemployment was cut in half, inflation greatly decreased and foreign investments began to come in.
Gjallica, VEFA, and Kamberi were a few of the largest Ponzi scheme companies that were operating in Albania since 1992. They all offered interest 6-10% compared to the Central Bank of Albania which was offering only 4-5%. Although the three companies had real investments, they could not keep up with Sude which joined the schemes in March 1996 by offering the highest rates 12-18% per month and had no real investments. VEFA was one of the largest schemes in terms of liabilities because it had 85,000 investors while Xhaferri and Populli attracted over one million investors in a country with less than 3.5 million. When the new schemes entered the market they increased the pressure in the schemes that where already operating to increase rates. In September, Populli offered a rate of 30% a month. In November, Xhaferri offered to triple depositor’s money in only 3 months (this equals to 44% monthly rate). Sude offered to double the money in only 2 months and by late November the face of liability reached U$ 1.2 Billion.(Jarvis,2000)
Despite the fact that rates were increasing every day the government (won by Democratic Party) chose to ignore the facts and keep supporting these pyramid schemes. Pyramid schemes were legally advertizing the rates in national TV, and government officials where joining parties created by these companies (Price, Norris, 2009)
After four months the pyramids collapsed, bringing down the Democratic Party government and taking Albania into anarchy. The first ones to go bankrupt were Sude and Gajllica. The remaining companies, VEFA, Kamberi, Populli, Silva, Canaj and others, tried to take control of the situation by lowering the rates to 5%, but this did not succeed either. The bankrupt of Sude and Gjallica triggered riots in south of Albania, especially in Vlora where Gjallica was based. As the government was trying to control the violence that spurred all over the country they also promised to return the money to all the investors. In November 26 the government froze bank account of Gjafrri and Populli which contained shocking amount of money over US $200 million (10% of GDP). The Bank of Albania limited the daily withdrawals to US $ 300,000 to prevent other schemes from emptying their bank accounts. The government did not go prosecute some of the larger Pyramid schemes, VAFA was one of the companies which kept advertizing their rates during the worst of violence. In March 1997 collapsed, and Albania was in a total chaos. Police and military mostly deserted, and more than a million weapons were looted, over 2,000 people were killed and the whole country was filled with violence in less than a few months. In July 1997 the country held new elections which were won by the Socialist Party. Albania signed a new Emergency agreement with IMF and asked from Italian government to help in bringing countries fiscal system in track. Only in March 1998, the protest and violence was brought under control. Albania remained very weak and the consequences of 1997 have carried on into the year that followed.
The Albania case started out quite legitimately but was unstable and the manager of the funds could not handle meeting the demands of the investors when other companies entered the market and began fiercely competing. To prevent this type of crime the Central Bank of Albania should of implemented law that not allow investors to give promises higher than the capital that they had contained. Also government should involve consumer education explaining about the consequences and the risks of being involved in these types of pyramid/ Ponzi schemes. Furthermore, business education can be an effort to offer information to new entrepreneurs; especially those who may unknowingly violate the law. Strategic future planning is another preventive alternative, since banks are very well capable of helping the law enforcement to detect these types of schemes.

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