The Piranha of Portugal: The Greatest Counterfeiter of All Time
Bryan Taylor, Chief Economist, Global Financial Data
The new US $100 bill is out, as you may have seen this holiday season. Our dear old Uncle Ben is a technological wonder with a dozen different anti-counterfeiting devices on it. Since there are more $100 bills circulating outside of the United States than inside, the U.S. Government has to insure that counterfeiters are unable to replicate the government’s most treasured export. This raises the question, who was the greatest counterfeiter of all time?
Although governments have done more to destroy their own currencies than all the counterfeiters in the history of mankind put together, the government is not the correct answer. Governments have debased their own currency for millennia. Historical examples of government-induced debasement include:
The Roman Empire replacing its silver Denarii with billon Antonininii;
The Khans of China creating the first paper inflation in the 1300s;
The United States making its first currency, the Continental Dollar, worthless;
Germany hyperinflating out of its debts by creating trillions of marks;
Or the US Federal Reserve blowing up its balance sheet.
In holding governments accountable, we are also not talking about one government counterfeiting the currency of another government as the
Barbarians did of the Roman gold Aureus
British did of Continental Dollars and French Assignats during the 1700s
Germans did of British Pounds during World War II in Operation Bernhard
United States did of Japan’s Occupation currency of the Philippines
North Koreans did of US Dollars, making them one of their principle exports.
Governments have consistently destroyed their own currency and those of other countries without ever being held accountable for their “crime” the way a counterfeiter is punished. No, we are not talking about governments; we are talking about individual counterfeiters. It is one thing for the government to expand the money supply in order to stimulate the economy and help the unemployed. It is quite another for counterfeiters to do the same –albeit on a much smaller scale– to benefit themselves. Counterfeiters provide competition to the government, and though government officials are applauded when they inflate the economy, counterfeiters are condemned to prison – when caught.
A Classy Counterfeiter
Our vote for the greatest counterfeiter of all time goes to Artur Alves dos Reis whose story was recounted by Murray Teigh Bloom in The Man Who Stole Portugal. Reis was both smart and classy, and his criminal operation reflected these qualities. To my knowledge, Reis put together the most audacious counterfeiting scheme in history. He conceived his master plan while he was in jail in Oporto for embezzling the funds of a company he had taken over. Some criminals sit in jail and try to avoid repeating their misfortunes. Others, like Reis or Tony de Angelis, think-up bigger, more foolproof schemes. While he was sitting in his cell, Reis put together his master plan that would make him the richest, and possibly the most influential man in Portugal in only one year.Although you may not realize it, counterfeiting is a very complex operation. To be successful, (i.e. not get caught), be able to spend your money, and not receive free room and board from the government, you have to do three things successfully. First, you have to create counterfeit currency that can’t be detected. Second, you need a way of laundering the money and converting it into real assets so you can enjoy the fruits of your ill-begotten labors. Third, you must make sure that you avoid the triple curse of detection, arrest and conviction. Let’s see what Reis’s solution was to this age-old problem.
Step One: Create an Undetectable Banknote
First, create a counterfeit that can’t be detected. During the 1920s, the Banco do Portugal had the exclusive right to print currency in Portugal. The bank used foreign printing companies with superior anti-counterfeiting technology to protect their banknotes. The English company, Waterlow & Sons, printed the 500 and 1000 Escudo notes (equal to about $25 and $50 in 1923) for the Banco do Portugal. So why not get Waterlow & Sons to print the notes for Reis as well?Reis was a natural-born forger. He forged his diploma as an engineer from Oxford as a “joke”, but this helped land him a job as a government railroad inspector in Angola at the age of twenty-two. In 1924, he forged $100,000 worth of checks and used the money to take over control of Ambaca, the Royal Trans-African railway Company of Angola. He then used the money in the company’s treasury to cover his own checks. He was arrested in July 1924 for embezzlement, but was released two months later when a court decided his was a civil and not a criminal case. It was during the two months he was the guest of the Oporto police that he conceived his infamous counterfeiting scheme. The key was to find someone with a respected name who could help him convince Waterlow & Sons to print banknotes secretly for Reis. He found three men of questionable repute, but with connections to help Reis: Jose Bandeira, Gustav Adolf Hennies and Karel Marang. Bandeira got his brother, the Portuguese Minister to the Netherlands, to give Marang a letter introducing him as a respected Dutch citizen who had a power-of-attorney for Alves Reis to negotiate the printing of the banknotes. Marang went to Waterlow & Sons in London, and presented his letter of introduction as the “Consul General of Persia” on forged Banco do Portugal stationary to Sir William Waterlow. Marang spun the story Reis had instructed him to give. A private syndicate was being formed to save the colony of Angola from its current dire financial condition with a $5,000,000 investment. In return for the loan, the syndicate would be allowed to print and circulate banknotes in Angola. Waterlow & Sons would print the banknotes for the syndicate, and once the notes reached Angola, the banknotes would be supercharged with the word ANGOLA so they wouldn’t be confused with notes from the mother country. The whole affair had to be kept secret lest Angola fall into further financial difficulties due to ill-placed rumors of pending economic ruin. Of course, Sir William knew that supercharging notes was normal practice for Portugal’s colonies, and that the Banco Ultramarino had the exclusive right to print banknotes for the Portuguese colonies. This was an opportunity for Waterlow & Sons to get this business away from Bradbury, Wilkinson & Co., the current printer of banknotes for the Banco Ultramarino in Angola. Marang asked Waterlow to print the 500 Escudo note with Vasco da Gama on it. The deal was signed on January 6, 1925, and for the printing cost of $7,200, Reis and his conspirators would receive $5,000,000 in banknotes, a 70,000 percent return on their investment. Bandeira picked up the first group of notes from Waterlow & Sons on February 10, and by March 20, they had 100 million Escudos ($5,000,000) in Portuguese banknotes. Bandeira used his orange diplomatic card to transport the bills in luggage marked the “Legation of Portugal” across the borders without detection. After the first step had been successfully completed, they placed an order for an additional 190 million Escudos in banknotes ($9,500,000). Of course, the banknotes never made it to Angola.
The greatest risk in the scheme was having banknotes with duplicate numbers discovered, but this was the lesser of two evils. If Reis and Marang had requested banknotes outside the numerical range of the 500 Escudo notes, the spurious notes would have been quickly discovered. The lower risk lay in duplicating the existing serial numbers, and hoping the counterfeiters were able to successfully release all the banknotes before the law of large numbers caught up with them.
Step Two: Laundering Money with Your Own Bank
Step One of the plan was complete, now for Step Two: laundering the money. A small-scale counterfeiter can pass bills through petty criminals, but the notes Reis and friends had were equal to almost 1% of Portugal’s GDP. This was the equivalent of over $150 billion if the same amount had been released in the United States today. Even if Reis hired every petty criminal in Lisbon and Oporto, he wouldn’t be able to unload a fraction of the banknotes.
Reis was going first class with his counterfeiting scheme, and he decided the only way to launder the money was to have his own bank. Reis used his newly printed banknotes to encourage corrupt Portuguese officials and politicians to grant him his bank charter, and on June 15, 1925, the Banco Angola e Metropole’s application was approved by the government. Of course, the bank would have multiple branches in Lisbon and Oporto to speed up the distribution of their treasure. Want to exchange foreign currency? The Banco Angola e Metropole provides the best rates. Want to borrow money for a business or mortgage? The Banco Angola e Metropole will be happy to extend you the loan in cash. Want high interest rates on your deposits? Go to the Banco Angola e Metropole? In the meantime, Reis, his wife, and their compatriots spent their money freely, buying jewelry, cars, real estate, and sending money abroad. Reis flooded Portugal with his freshly minted banknotes, and the economy of Portugal was booming. And as Reis would rationalize, how was this any different from what a real government did? Was there really any difference between Keynesianism and counterfeiting?
Step Three: Avoid Detection (For a While)
Step Three and the most important of all was how to avoid detection, arrest and imprisonment. For this, Reis had a brilliant solution. Since they were counterfeiting Banco do Portugal banknotes, only the Bank could initiate proceedings to prosecute them. But what if –just what if– Reis controlled the shares in the Banco do Portugal? The bank had already exceeded its statutory banknote limit many times over and the directors of the Banco do Portugal had never been prosecuted, so why should they prosecute Reis? Or as Reis put it, “How can they arrest us when they’re us and we’re them?”Like most European countries, Portugal had suffered inflation after World War I. Prices had increased 48% per annum between 1919 and 1924, and the Escudo had depreciated by 87% against the Pound Sterling. Although the Banco do Portugal was only supposed to issue banknotes thrice its capital, it had, in fact, issued banknotes a hundred times its capital. By comparison with this, Reis’s monetary manipulations were minor by comparison. The chart below shows the depreciation of the Portuguese Escudo against the U.S. Dollar after World War I.
Reis began buying up as many shares of the Banco do Portugal as he could, so he could gain a controlling interest in the bank to protect himself. Should his scheme ever be detected, Reis would, quite naturally, refuse to prosecute himself. By November 1925, Reis controlled over 10,000 shares of Banco do Portugal stock. “Just another month” and Reis would have control of the Banco do Portugal. Then he could live in luxury for the rest of his life. As in all of these cases, whether it be counterfeiting currency, pumping and dumping, forging corporate books, hiding money in offshore accounts, or any of the other financial schemes that crooks are heir to, it was hubris and greed which undid Reis. He took part of his proceeds and invested them in a mineral and oil exploitation scheme in Angola hoping to increase his wealth even more. In December 1925, Reis and Hennies were on their way back to Portugal from Angola. Aboard the ship, they learned that the Banco do Portugal was doing an investigation of the 500 Escudo notes. A lowly, underpaid teller who worked part-time at a jeweler to help make ends meet had become suspicious of the Banco Angola e Metropole. The Escudo notes he received were never in numerical order (Reis’s plan to shuffle the banknotes to avoid detection actually caused detection), and the pages that recorded foreign exchange transactions at the bank were torn out. The teller alerted the Banco do Potugal, an investigation began, and soon duplicate banknotes were discovered. Hennies, sensing that the scheme was up, decided to sail on, but Reis disembarked in Lisbon. His goal was to lay the blame for the duplicate banknotes on officials at the Banco do Portugal by forging documents that the Governor of the Banco do Portugal was the originator of the whole plot.
The Scam Exposed
The crisis broke on December 4, 1925 when the newspaper O Sêculo published an expose of the Banco Angola e Metropole. When one of its branches was closed, huge caches of duplicate 500 Escudo banknotes were discovered. Reis, his compatriots, and almost anyone associated with the Banco Angola e Metropole, (save Hennies who had sailed on), were arrested. Incredibly enough, the Governor and the Vice Governor of the Banco do Portugal were also arrested, so convincing were Reis’s forged documents. It was as if Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen had been arrested for counterfeiting!The Banco do Portugal faced a tough decision. What should it do with all the 500 Escudo notes? It was impossible to differentiate between the original and the duplicate banknotes because they were printed by the same printer using the same plates. The Banco do Portugal came to the only conclusion possible. Every single Vasco da Gama 500 Escudo note would have to be withdrawn from circulation. People could exchange up to 200 of the Vasco da Gamas for 1000 Escudo notes until December 26. After that, they would be worthless. The revelation of the counterfeiting plot created a huge loss of confidence in the corrupt, democratic government. Military officers who were aggrieved over their pay failing to keep up with inflation, overthrew the democratic government on May 28, 1926. This eventually led to the dictatorship of Portugal by Dr. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar (who had been Portugal’s Finance Minister) in 1932. Salazar remained dictator of Portugal until his death in 1968. A scheme to counterfeit currency and make a forger rich had led, indirectly, to the downfall of a democracy which was followed by a forty-year dictatorship. Reis remained in jail and was found guilty on June 29, 1930 of falsely introducing 330,000 banknotes into Portugal. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison. His compatriots were found guilty as well, but received lesser sentences. Reis was released from prison on May 14, 1945, and died ten years later. Sir William Waterlow was sued by the Banco do Portugal for damages for printing the banknotes. Of course, Waterlow had no knowledge of the counterfeiting scheme and as his lawyers argued, no actual damage had been done to the bank by the banknotes. If anything, Portugal was better off as a result of Reis’s unconventional stimulus plan. Though Waterlow spent a million dollars on lawyers defending him, he lost the case and Waterlow & Sons was forced to pay of £610,392 (about $3,000,000) in damages. There must be a certain irony in the fact that as a result of the lawsuit, the main beneficiary of the scheme to counterfeit the banknotes was the Banco do Portugal itself. Sir William died of peritonitis in 1931 and the case was settled in April 1932. Reis was the last of the great counterfeiters. His scheme had style and panache, as did he. His story ripped through the papers just as his scam ripped through the economy. This case study should not be forgotten nor should we forget Reis and the ingenuity that rested behind his schemes. The piranha of Portugal may be gone, but there will always be a new Wolf on Wall Street attempting to profit at the expense of others.
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