Wall Street Journal reporters Wright and Hope tell the story of a massive international financial scandal they initially exposed in the newspaper in 2015, reporting that made them finalists for the 2016 Pulitzer Prize.
The fraud centers on one man, Malaysian-born Jho Low, who by age 20 had begun figuring out how lies about his own background, combined with careful study of international financial markets, could enrich him. By age 30, Low had fooled even sophisticated international bankers into investing billions of dollars into fraudulent companies he created. Much of the book is set in the United States, where Low attended college, resided part-time, and identified his credulous marks, which included dealmakers at the mammoth Wall Street firm of Goldman Sachs, among many others. Many American readers will not have a solid background in Malaysian affairs; a strength of this account is the authors’ explication of how Malaysian culture and politics helped enable Low to carry out his schemes. The “whale” of the title is slang for a high-rolling gambler, an apt description of Low. He did not gamble with his own money, however. Instead, he used billions of dollars raised from corrupt governments and wealthy individual investors to finance his lavish lifestyle, which the authors describe meticulously. The partying included celebrities from around the globe, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Paris Hilton, fashion models, and Kanye West and other hip-hop stars. A major irony documented by the authors was the creation of a movie studio by Low using stolen cash; the studio would produce the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, based on the memoir by financial fraudster Jordan Belfort. Despite all the evidence against him, the question remains: “Will Low ever be brought to justice?”
As the authors amply prove, the scandal reaches far beyond Low. To succeed, he relied on the naiveté, greed, and generally immoral conduct of huge banks as well as corrupt governments.