Ivar Kreuger, known to aficionados of fraud cases as “the Match King,” flourished 80 years ago. As this latest biography shows, his complex schemes could have occurred just yesterday—or might again tomorrow.
Partnoy (Law/Univ. of San Diego; Infectious Greed: How Deceit and Risk Corrupted the Financial Markets, 2003, etc.) traces the fabulous rise and spectacular fall of the financier. Once counted among the wealthiest men on earth, Kreuger charmed royalty, tycoons and reporters, as well as Greta Garbo and Herbert Hoover. Along with dubious secret enterprises, he ran some legitimate businesses, including mining, construction and the manufacture of much of the world’s matchsticks, financing sovereign governments in exchange for match monopolies. With fancy, arcane footwork, Krueger embellished real deals with shady transactions involving many of his dozens of affiliated firms. Money flowed from Wall Street to Stockholm, the Netherlands to Poland with scant documentation. He booked false gains to pay consistent 25 percent dividends. He kept real liabilities off balance sheets. Politicians, investors, brokers and bankers—with the notable exception of J.P. Morgan—were pleased to join the fun, no questions asked. It all unraveled in 1932 when Kreuger committed suicide and his transgressions were exposed. Estimates of losses vary, notes Partnoy, but millions worldwide were bankrupted. The author assiduously parses the data and pays special attention to the way Kreuger’s American accountant was hustled. He also emphasizes that, despite clear deceit and a touch of forgery, the Match King wasn’t entirely bad. After all, he made real money with a few real businesses.
A pertinent, timely tale of financial fraud and how it was maintained for so long.