New York City – On Wall Street, his name is legendary. With money he had made as a lifeguard on the urban beaches of Long Island, he built a trading powerhouse that had prospered for more than four decades. At age 70, he had become an influential spokesman for the traders who are the hidden gears of the marketplace.
But on Thursday morning, this consummate trader, Bernard L. Madoff, was arrested at his Manhattan home by federal agents who accused him of conducting a multibillion-dollar fraud scheme — perhaps the largest in Wall Street’s history.
Regulators have not yet verified the scale of the fraud. But the criminal complaint filed against Mr. Madoff on Thursday in federal court in Manhattan reports that he estimated the losses at $50 billion.
“We are alleging a massive fraud — both in terms of scope and duration,” said Linda Chatman Thomsen, director of the enforcement division at the Securities and Exchange Commission. “We are moving quickly and decisively to stop the fraud and protect remaining assets for investors.”
Andrew M. Calamari, the associate director of enforcement in the S.E.C.’s regional office in New York, said the case involved “a stunning fraud that appears to be of epic proportions.”
According to his lawyers, Mr. Madoff was released on a $10 million bond. “Bernie Madoff is a longstanding leader in the financial services industry,” said Daniel Horwitz, one of his lawyers. “He will fight to get through this unfortunate set of events.”
Mr. Madoff’s brother and business colleague, Peter Madoff, declined to comment on the case or discuss its implications for the Madoff investment firm, which at one point was the largest market maker on the electronic Nasdaq market, regularly operating as both a buyer and seller of a host of widely traded securities. The firm employed hundreds of traders.
There was some worry on Wall Street that Mr. Madoff’s fall would shake more foundations than his own.
According to the most recent federal filings, Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities, the firm he founded in 1960, operated more than two dozen funds overseeing $17 billion.
These funds have been widely marketed to wealthy investors, hedge funds and other institutional investors for more than a decade, although an S.E.C. filing in the case said the firm listed 11 to 23 clients.
At the request of the Securities and Exchange Commission, a federal judge appointed a receiver on Thursday evening to secure the Madoff firm’s overseas accounts and warned the firm not to move any assets until he had ruled on whether to freeze the assets.
A hearing on that request is scheduled for Friday.
Regulators said they hoped to have a clearer picture of the losses facing investors by that court hearing.
“We have 16 examiners on site all day and through the night poring over the records,” said Mr. Calamari of the S.E.C.
The Madoff funds attracted investors with the promise of high returns with low fees. One of Mr. Madoff’s more prominent funds, the Fairfield Sentry fund, reported having $7.3 billion in assets in October and claimed to have paid more than 11 percent interest each year through its 15-year track record.
Competing hedge fund managers have wondered privately for years how Mr. Madoff generated such high returns, in bull markets and bear, given the generally low-yielding investment strategies he described to his clients.
“The numbers were too good to be true, for too long,” said Girish Reddy, a managing director at Prisma Partners, an investment firm that invests in hedge funds. “And the supporting infrastructure was weak.” Mr. Reddy said his firm had looked at the Madoff funds but decided against investing in them because their performance was too consistently positive, even in times when the market was incredibly volatile.
But the essential drama is a personal one — one laid out in the dry language of a criminal complaint by Lev L. Dassin, the acting United States attorney in Manhattan, and a regulatory lawsuit filed by the S.E.C. According to those documents, the case came to light on Wednesday when Mr. Madoff told two senior employees at the firm that his money-management unit was “all just one big lie” and “basically, a giant Ponzi scheme.”
By this account, Mr. Madoff said that he intended to surrender to authorities in about a week but first wanted to distribute approximately $200 million to $300 million to “certain selected employees, family and friends.”
On Thursday morning, he was arrested on a single count of securities fraud, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $5 million.
Mr. Madoff is currently on the board of Nasdaq OMX Group, formerly the Nasdaq Stock Market, and serves as the chairman of the Sy Syms School of Business at Yeshiva University. His son Mark Madoff served as the vice chairman of the board of directors of the National Association of Securities Dealers, from 1993 to 1994 and was also an board member of brokerage firm A.G. Edwards.