Bernard Madoff is supposed to be cooperating with the authorities. It is possible that one, or two, or three of the missing fifty billion will somehow be recovered. But the rest of the money will simply vanish into thin air.
To appreciate exactly how thin the air is at that altitude, a few comparisons are in order.
Rod Blagojevich was ready to sell a Senate seat for half a million dollars. That is exactly 1/100,000th of the amount that Bernie made disappear.
When Dennis Levine was caught in the insider trading scandal of the late 1980's, he had made a total of 10.4 million, 1/5000th of fifty billion. (Admittedly, this was with 1987 dollars, but inflation has made only a small dent in that fraction.)
Robert Vesco, perhaps the most famous fugitive financier of all time, embezzled slightly over two hundred million from four funds he controlled. This is 1/250th.
In 1996, when Bill Gates was named the richest man in the world, his net worth was listed at $18.5 billion. (At his peak in 1999, at the height of the internet bubble, he was worth 90 billion. In 2005, he was ranked first with 46.5 billion.)
In 2005 the GNP of Kazakhstan (of "Borat" fame) was 44.4 billion. Luxembourg had 30.0 billion, and Yugoslavia had 26.8 billion.
There are plenty of comparisons to make. But for now Madoff is the grand champion, the Michael Phelps of scammers. Some day someone will come along to replace him. But let's hope -- for the sake of future investors -- that Madoff's reign lasts a long time.