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Three on a Match – the Death of the Leonardo of Larcenists

Ivar Kreuger was a financial genius, for better or for worse.

Kreuger was an industrial and financial genius who sought complete control over the operations of his global match conglomerate. At the height of his power, Kreuger ran a monopoly that controlled 75% of all global match sales. Kreuger succeeded, in part, by introducing innovations in finance that are still being used today, but which have also been used by companies such as Enron and others to deceive investors. His insatiable desire for complete control and the promises Kreuger made that couldn’t be kept led to the collapse of his company in 1932 and billions of dollars in losses to investors.

Miracle Man

Ivar Kreuger got his start in the construction business, introducing new engineering techniques in Sweden that enabled him to win contracts to build the Stockholm Olympic Stadium (1912) and Stockholm City Hall (1913). He succeeded not only because he used the latest construction technology, but because Kreuger was able to complete these buildings on time and on budget. Unlike other construction companies, Kreuger promised to pay a penalty if buildings were not completed by the contract date. He also asked that he receive a bonus if the projects were completed early, which they often were. Kreuger was a wheeler and dealer from the beginning. He knew how to incentivize his clients to both win contracts and to profit from them.

Although successful in the construction business, Kreuger focused on developing the match company his family owned. He established AB Svenska Förenade Tändsticksfabriker (Swedish Match) in 1918 and spun off the construction business to expand Kreuger and Toll’s match business. Kreuger’s ultimate goal for the firm was the complete horizontal and vertical integration of the match business in Scandinavia, which he achieved. Kreuger took advantage of an innovation in the production of matches which the Swedes had introduced in order to triumph over his competitors. Kreuger and Toll replaced flammable and volatile yellow phosphorus with the safer red phosphorus. Since matches were needed to light any fires, demand was inelastic, and this created huge profit opportunities for Kreuger and Toll. During the 1920s, “three on a match” was a catchphrase that warned people against lighting three cigarettes with the same match. The superstition originated during World War I when matches were scarce. Soldiers would light three cigarettes with a single match, but it was rumored that this was long enough for a sniper to focus on the cigarette and kill the third smoker. A Hollywood movie was made in 1932 in which one of three childhood friends ignored the warning and paid the price. Cynics said the superstition was a fraud and Kreuger had spread the rumor just to increase match sales. No one would put it past him. Kreuger took over lumber and other companies that provided the raw materials for matches. He introduced innovations to increase efficiency in production, administration, distribution and marketing. In a few years, Kreuger had established his match monopoly in Scandinavia, and prepared to conquer the rest of Europe. Providing loans to a government in exchange for a monopoly is a European tradition. Monopoly power was the origin of the Bank of England in 1694 and the basis of John Law’s schemes in France in the 1720s. Kreuger learned the lessons of the past and used governments to build his empire. During the 1920s, Europe was recovering from World War I. European governments were desperate for money in the late 1920s, and just as Kreuger knew how to wheel and deal in the construction business to get contracts, he knew how to encourage cash-poor European governments to provide him with the match monopolies he wanted. Kreuger negotiated with governments throughout Europe by offering them loans in exchange for state monopolies. It was a classic win-win. Kreuger ended up loaning almost $400 million to European governments during the 1920s, and was hailed as the “savior of Europe.” Loans were made to Poland, Danzig, Greece, Ecuador, France, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Germany, Latvia, Romania, Lithuania, Bolivia, Estonia, Guatemala and Turkey. Kreuger was able to provide funding because he owned the Skandinaviska Kreditaktiebolaget in Sweden, the Deutsche Unionsbank in Germany, the Union de Banques à Paris, the Banque de Suède et de Paris in France, and the Bank Amerykański w Polsce in Poland. He worked with banks in Europe and in America, using the assets of Kreuger and Toll with the promise of future profits and dividends to negotiate these loans. Kreuger promised the world though he often didn’t even know where the money for loans to Poland, Germany or France would come from. One way or another, during the 1920s, the money always showed up. In addition to the match business and banks, Kreuger controlled most of the forest industry in northern Sweden, planned to become head of a cellulose cartel, and attempted to create a telephone monopoly in Sweden through his ownership of Ericsson. Kreuger also had a major interest in the pulp manufacturer SCA, the Boliden gold mining company and the SKF ball bearing manufacturer, real estate companies, movie companies, trading companies, and railroads. All of these were profitable businesses which allowed him to expand Kreuger and Toll at a rapid pace. Success bred even greater success.  

Financial Innovations of the Leonardo of Larcenists

Kreuger, or the Leonardo of Larcenists as John Kenneth Galbraith referred to him, was able to achieve his rapid expansion because of his financial innovations and financial engineering. This enabled him to control how profits were reported, registering profits when none existed and shifting profits from one company or division to another to show a steady increase in profits. Kreuger wanted complete control. He created “A” and “B” shares for Kreuger and Toll, which enabled him to raise capital while not giving up power over his company. The “B” shares had the same rights to profits and dividends, but not the same votes. “B” shares had 1/1000of a voting right compared to an “A” share. Issuing different classes of shares to maintain control is commonplace today. In 2014, Google issued new shares that had only 1/10 of a vote of the original shares. Kreuger was able to attract additional capital to Kreuger and Toll by consistently paying a high dividend of 15% to 20%. When Kreuger and Toll issued American Depository Receipts (another innovation) for their shares in New York, they were able to raise tens of millions of dollars. Kreuger and Toll also issued convertible gold debentures paying 6.5%, a high rate at the time, which could be converted into common stock if the price of Kreuger and Toll stock rose. When Kreuger loaned money to governments he used binary foreign exchange options to protect his company from exchange rate fluctuations. These enabled Kreuger and Toll to specify in which currency, Dutch Guilders or United States Dollars, governments would pay back their loans. Kreuger always demanded payment in the stronger currency. Kreuger’s real innovation, however, was in using off-balance sheet entities to expand the company’s operations. Kreuger shifted losses into companies that were not included in the firm’s consolidated balance sheet so the company would always appear to enjoy growing profits. Kreuger differentiated between companies he had a majority interest in and ones he had a minority interest in. Profitable companies with a majority interest were placed on the balance sheet; companies with a minority interest were treated as investments. This enabled Kreuger to hide many of his loss-making investments from investors and competitors. The technique gave the company leverage which meant soaring profits in a bull market. But as Enron, Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers were to discover decades later, this technique could also lead to large losses or even the collapse of the company when the market declined. Kreuger and Toll was not a Ponzi scheme. Profits were reinvested in Kreuger and Toll’s divisions and subsidiaries to maintain the growth and success of the company. However, because Kreuger and Toll was highly leveraged, Kreuger needed to constantly expand his operations to pay the high dividends his companies provided, to issue new loans to governments, to purchase new companies, to obtain new monopolies, to expand his conglomerate, and to show expanding profits to shareholders and stakeholders. Like a hamster on a wheel, Kreuger had to run faster and faster to maintain the appearance of success.  

House of Cards

The Great Depression contributed to the collapse of Kreuger’s house of cards. When revenues and profits declined, Kreuger needed loans to keep his company going. Rumors began to spread that Kreuger and Toll was facing financial difficulties and the price of the company’s stock began to decline. As the graph below shows, the price of Kreuger and Toll “B” shares plummeted from 46 in March 1928 to 6 in September 1931 and traded around that level until March 1932 when the complete collapse of the company made the shares virtually worthless.

Kreuger had $650 million in capital on his balance sheet in 1932, which he used as collateral for loans and operations. Unbeknownst to anyone else, over $100 million of this was in Italian bonds which Kreuger had personally forged. Of his $400 million in “other investments”, $250 million turned out to be nothing but creative accounting. As rumors swelled and investors and governments began to demand answers, Kreuger scheduled a meeting with Ivar Rooth, chairman of the Swedish Riksbank, to negotiate a loan to save Kreuger and Toll. The two of them were to meet in Berlin on March 13, 1932, but on March 12, Kreuger was found dead in his room from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
Shares in Kreuger and Toll immediately collapsed, falling from $8 to $0.50 on the New York Curb. In the end, debenture holders did get 43 cents on the dollar, but shareholders got nothing. Freely manipulating balance sheets was not uncommon in the 1920s and 1930s, but no one had pushed accounting to the creative levels of Ivar Kreuger. In part, it was because of Kreuger’s actions that the SEC, when it was formed a few years later, introduced the concept of generally accepted accounting practices to avoid the future fleecing of investors. This hasn’t prevented the deceit and lies of an Enron or a Bernie Madoff, but it has reduced the number of frauds. Kreuger was a flawed genius. The way he ran Kreuger and Toll, the collapse of the company seemed inevitable despite the monopolies and highly profitable businesses which made up his conglomerate. As Warren Buffett once put it, when the tide goes out in a bear market, you’ll find out who is swimming naked, and Kreuger, as it turns out, didn’t have a stitch of clothes to his name. Kreuger knew it, and when the game was up, he took his life, leaving investors to pick up the pieces.

Global Financial Data Adds 3000 Series from the NBER Database

The National Bureau of Economic Research was founded in 1920 as a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization dedicated to promoting a greater understanding of how the economy works.

August 1914: When Global Stock Markets Closed

This week marks the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War I. On June 28, 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. This event led to a month of failed diplomatic maneuvering between Austria-Hungary, Germany, France, Russia, and Britain which ended with the onset of the Great War, as it was originally called. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on July 28, causing Germany and Russia to mobilize their armies on July 30. When Russia offered to negotiate rather than demobilize their army, Germany declared war on Russia on August 1. Germany declared war on France on August 3, and when Germany attacked Belgium on August 4, England declared war on Germany. Europe was at war, and millions would die in the battles that followed.

The impact on global stock markets was immediate: the closure of every major European exchange and many of the exchanges outside of Europe. Although no one would have predicted this result at the beginning of July 1914, by the end of the month, European stock exchanges were making preparations for the inevitable war and its impact. Never before had all of Europe’s major exchanges closed simultaneously, but then again, never had such a global cataclysm struck the world. There had been crises before when the stock market in the United States or other countries had closed, such as the 1848 Revolution in France, or the Panic of 1873 in New York, but never had all the world’s major stock markets closed simultaneously.  

Open Financial Markets Led to Closed Exchanges

Ironically, it was because of the openness of global financial markets before the war that the global closure of stock markets occurred. At the beginning of 1914, capital was free to flow from one country to another without hindrance. All the major countries of the world were on the Gold Standard, and differences in exchange rates were arbitraged through the buying and selling of international bonds listed on the world’s stock exchanges. A country such as Russia would issue a bond that was listed on the stock exchanges in London, New York, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and St. Petersburg. Differences in exchange rates between countries could be arbitraged by buying and selling bonds in different markets. In effect, this made European stock exchanges a single, integrated market. In 1914, currency flowed between countries with lightning speed. During the Napoleonic wars, money could only move as quickly as a ship could venture from one country to another. By 1914, cables stretched across the oceans of the world, and money as well as stock orders could be wired telegraphically from one corner of the world to another in minutes. Traders throughout the world could sell bonds and shares instantly, and it was the fear of massive selling, and the impact this would have on global markets that led to the shutdown of European exchanges. There was a concern that investors would try to repatriate their money leading to massive selling, a sharp fall in prices, and large amounts of capital flowing out of one country and into another. The impact of selling on brokers and jobbers was exacerbated by the way shares were traded on the London Stock Exchange. Individual trades were made on a daily basis, then carried until Settlement Day when trades were matched and crossed. Brokers would make up the surplus or deficit on their accounts by settling outstanding trades with cash. As long as there were no significant swings in stock or bond prices, brokers had sufficient capital to settle their accounts. However, since traders relied on credit, large swings in prices could and would bankrupt many of the brokers, worsening the financial panic. To avoid this problem, stock markets were closed until a solution could be found.  

The War Drives Stock Prices Down

Of course, to investors not being able to buy or sell shares is even worse than selling them at a loss. Although stocks could not be traded on the main exchanges, over-the-counter markets replaced exchanges for those who were desperate enough to sell. Although the NYSE was closed between July 30 and December 12 of 1914, stocks were quoted by brokers and traded off the exchange. Global Financial Data has gone back and collected stock prices during the closure of the NYSE to recreate the Dow Jones Industrial Average while the NYSE was closed. We collected the data for the 20 stocks in the new DJIA 20 Industrials and calculated the average of the bid and ask prices from August 24, 1914 to December 12, 1914. This enabled us to discover that the 1914 bottom for stocks actually occurred on November 2, 1914 when the DJIA hit 49.07, over a month before the NYSE reopened. Few people realize that stocks in the US had already bottomed out and were heading into a new bull market when the NYSE reopened on December 12, 1914. The DJIA did not revisit this level until the Great Depression in 1932. The graph below shows how the Dow Jones Industrial Average behaved during 1914, including the period of the NYSE’s closure. Although the market declined with the onset of war, investors eventually realized that war in Europe would bring opportunities to American companies to sell industrial goods and war materiel. Once this fact settled in, the stock market rose steadily for the next year.
The NYSE reopened trading for bonds under restrictions on November 28th; the San Francisco Stock and Bond Exchange reopened on December 1st; and the NYSE resumed trading at pegged prices on December 12th, though the prospect of war profits soon made these restrictions irrelevant. As the graph below shows, the Dow Jones Industrial Average almost doubled in price in the year following its bottom in November 1914. The market paused, then had another rally into 1916 before falling back once investors realized the strong profits they had predicted from the war would not be realized.  

The Closure of European Exchanges

In Europe, the problem of preventing catastrophic declines in stock prices was solved by putting a floor on share prices. Initially, stocks and bonds were not allowed to trade below the price they had been trading at on July 31, 1914. The government also placed restrictions on capital, limiting or preventing large flows of capital out of the country for the remainder of the war. With these restrictions in place, markets reopened in Europe. The London Times began printing stock prices for London and Bordeaux on September 19th and for Paris on December 8, 1914. In January 1915, all shares were allowed to trade on the London Stock Exchange, though with price restrictions. The St. Petersburg exchange reopened in 1917 only to close two months later due to the Russian Revolution. The Berlin Stock Exchange did not reopen until December 1917.

Unlike the United States, stocks on the London Stock Exchange declined in price during World War I. This was due not only to the decline in earnings that occurred and general selling of shares to raise capital, but just as importantly, because of the lack of new buying and the shift of capital to government war debt. British companies were allowed to issue new shares only if the issue was in the national interest, and foreign governments and companies were not allowed to issue any new shares. The British government wanted to insure that all available capital was used to fund the growing war debt. Most of the new bonds that listed on the London Stock Exchange were British government bonds and their share of the London Stock Exchange’s capitalization rose from 9% to 33% during the war. The performance of the London Stock Exchange between 1913 and 1919 is shown below. As can be seen, stocks lost value continually during the war, hitting their bottom only in 1918, despite the general inflation that occurred in Britain during the war, which normally would have carried prices upwards.

The Long-Term Impact of World War I

World War I destroyed the global integration of capital markets. The Gold Standard never returned despite attempts after the war to revive it. The system of issuing bonds and shares internationally failed to recover from the war, and stock exchanges listed fewer international shares. The ownership of stocks and bonds from other countries shrank dramatically.
Exchanges were subjected to extensive regulation that did not exist prior to the war. Germans were not even allowed to trade on the London Stock Exchange for years after the war was over. London lost its place as the center of global finance during the war as its role as the center of global finance was passed on to New York. Nevertheless, New York was never able to take on the pivotal role in capital markets that London held prior to World War I. After the war was over, financial markets had to deal with the dislocations created by the war: inflation, increased government debt, reparation payments, the Russian Revolution, the creation of new countries, England’s failed attempt to return to the Gold Standard, the stock market crash of 1929, the Great Depression, debt defaults, competitive devaluations, the concentration of gold in France and the United States and a hundred other financial repercussions that resulted from World War I. Governments and stock exchanges did learn their lessons from World War I. When World War II began, the London Stock Exchange closed for only a week, and the New York Stock Exchange never closed during World War II, save for August 15-16, 1945 when the NYSE closed to recognize V-J Day and the end of WWII. The Berlin Stock Exchange remained open during World War II, though price floors and capital restrictions kept the prices of shares from falling until the devaluation of 1948. Although global stock markets reopened between 1914 and 1917, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the restrictions on financial markets that prevented the free flow of capital that had existed before 1914 were removed. Only after the fall of Communism did stock markets become as globally integrated as they had been before 1914. Though the focus of the hundredth anniversary of World War I will be on the massive destruction of World War I, the deaths of millions, and how World War I laid the foundations for World War II, the impact on stock markets and international finance should never be forgotten.

American Tobacco and the Legacy of the Antitrust Laws

An original member of the 12 stocks that made up the original Dow Jones Industrial Average in 1896 ceased to exist last month, though few people noticed. General Electric Co. is the only one of the original 12 members that remains in the DJIA. The National Lead Co. (now NL Industries Inc.) and Laclede Gas Co. (now Laclede Group Holding Co.) were removed in 1916 and 1899 respectively. Other companies among the original 12, such as the United States Leather Co., American Spirits Manufacturing Co. and United States Cordage Co. disappeared long ago. Beam, Inc. was acquired by Suntory Holdings on April 30, 2014. Although you may not immediately recognize Beam, Inc., originally known as the American Tobacco Co., as an original member of the DJIA, the company played a significant role in American corporate history.  

Automated Cut and Roll

The American Tobacco Co. originally incorporated in New Jersey by James Buchanan Duke on January 21, 1890 as a merger of five tobacco companies: W. Duke & Sons (begun in 1879), Allen & Gintner, W.S. Kimball & Co., Kinney Tobacco and Goodwin & Co. Duke gained a competitive advantage by using machines manufactured by the Bonsack Machine Co. to roll and cut cigarettes. Until then, cigarettes had been rolled and cut manually. A skilled worker could roll 200 cigarettes in an hour. Bonsack’s machines could roll 200 cigarettes in a minute. Duke got a secret contract with the Bonsack Machine Co. and used this competitive advantage to cut his prices and slowly take over the American tobacco industry. The five companies that formed the American Tobacco Co. in 1890 produced 90% of the cigarettes in America. Duke increased his control over the tobacco industry on October 9, 1904 when he reincorporated the American Tobacco Co. after acquiring both the Consolidated Tobacco Co. and the Continental Tobacco Co. As the chart below shows, the stock for the original American Tobacco Co. rose from 100 to 250 between 1890 and 1904, rewarding shareholders handsomely.