Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Fraud and financial innovation: Ivar Krueger

I had meant to post this last week and lost it in the link-vault.
A Christmas Special from The Economist:

Ivar Kreuger was the world's greatest swindler. He would have thrived today

VADSTENA, a lakeside medieval town in central Sweden, has for centuries drawn pilgrims through the surrounding cornfields to the tomb of Saint Birgitta, a 14th-century noblewoman and mystic. Five minutes' walk from the abbey where her remains lie stands an imposing castle, surrounded by a moat, its tall Baroque tower looming through the mists that swirl off Lake V├Ąttern. In the cellars of this fortress are racks upon racks of cables, letters and documents, stored in plain cardboard boxes. Two kilometres of them pertain loosely to one man, Ivar Kreuger, who in his heyday had a stature far more revered—at least in the world of finance and international diplomacy—than that of his devout countrywoman, Birgitta. Occasionally his papers still lure curious visitors to Vadstena.

If Birgitta is the patron saint of Europe, Kreuger was the patron saint of sinners; he was arguably the most brilliant and ambitious swindler who ever lived. In the first three decades of the 20th century, he built up an industrial empire founded on the most humble of innovations, the Swedish-made safety match, that lit a fire of speculative excess around the world creating, then burning through, fortunes that would be measured now in the billions. In the words of John Kenneth Galbraith, writing in 1961, “Boiler-room operators, peddlers of stocks in the imaginary Canadian mines, mutual-fund managers whose genius and imagination are unconstrained by integrity, as well as less exotic larcenists, should read about Kreuger. He was the Leonardo of their craft.”>>>MORE