“Billion Dollar Whale” (2018) is a book by Hope and Wright chronicling the story of Jho Low, the man who stole billions of dollars from the Malaysian government to fund his lavish lifestyle.
About Jho Low
From a psychological perspective, Low seemed to be a mix of a man with extreme personal drive to accumulate and wealth, as well as to spend that wealth, and to show off.
Low was a compulsive spender for himself, as well as a compulsive spender on others as a way to enhance his status.
He craved recognition, and he didn’t even hit on many of the women he regaled with expensive gifts.
Here’s my review of the most important bits, from a strategies and power dynamics perspective:
1. To Steal Money, Learn How to Hide It
Says the author:
Jho Low’s story epitomizes the shocking power of those who learn how to master the levers of international finance in the twenty-first century.
- Set up shell corporations in high-secrecy jurisdictions
To begin with, you want to incorporate in high-secrecy jurisdictions. Also see the review of “Tax-Free Today“.
- Give them pompous names
Low set up two shell companies with the names of “ADIA Investment Corporation” and “KIA Investment Corporation”. Low chose these names because they looked related to the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, or ADIA, and Kuwait Investment Authority, or KIA, two famous, multi-billion-dollar sovereign wealth funds. But of course, they had no real links to the funds.
- Use IOTAs to get money into the US
Say the authors:
Lawyers, unlike bankers, don’t have to conduct due diligence on a client. Details of transfers through IOLTAs, meanwhile, are protected by lawyer-client privilege.
- Buy art and jewels to launder money
Dealers are not required to disclose the identities of their customers, and often don’t even know who’s actually behind the purchases. Some of the most famous art galleries also offer storage of goods, so they can be turned into banks.
- Buy a yacht
You can move them anywhere and they stay outside of the reach of different governments, moving only where you are welcomed (and being welcomed means that you must pay and/or ingratiate someone).
2. Develop and Nurture Powerful Contacts & Friends
Much of Low’s life success, which would have been a successful life even without stealing, was based on contacts and social networks.
Say the authors:
He began to see Wharton foremost as a place to socialize and build his contacts.
And about his partying as a way of making friends:
For sure, he enjoyed partying, and he liked having pretty women around, but more than anything this was an investment, one that made him appear successful and indispensable.
3. Feed Your Allies
People will give you opportunities, support, and favor, if you keep feeding them with what they want.
Say the authors:
In these early stages, he began to focus on how to reward his allies—foremost among them Abu Dhabi executives and the family of Prime Minister Najib Razak
Low was able to get government money because he made his prime minister friend and his wife the recipients of his gifts and largesse.
Najib closed both eyes, never asked questions, and supported Low, because he was getting his big kickbacks.
4. Appear More Linked & Powerful Than You Really Are
Low’s rise to power was largely based on the fact that some people who are used to luxury never prod too much to make sure they understand who they’re dealing with.
They feel entitled, and if some guys appear to be on their same level, they rarely spend much time checking their credentials and background. All the more so if that guy provides what they want: money and luxury.
Say the authors about Low pretending to be a power-broker between the Malaysian government and Saudi Arabia:
Low was doing his all to give the impression that he was indispensable, and the meeting with Prince Turki on the Alfa Nero in August was meant to deepen that feeling. Unbeknownst to Najib and Rosmah, it was a setup, a facade of officialdom, aimed at making the prime minister and his wife feel they were getting close to Saudi Arabia’s royal family.
The Saudi prince was also a great target for Low: he was a true blue blood and a big name, but had uncertain political prospects and needed cash. So he was amenable to Low’s promises of future financial rewards.
5. Power & Success Don’t Require Dominance or Aggression
Low was an unassuming man, in many ways.
He remained out of the limelight, was rarely seen enjoying his own parties, and seemed more steeped into making others feel powerful, than to overpower others.
Say the authors about Jho Low when he was a student:
Many adults remember Low as smooth and deferential, but adept at using this charm to get what he wanted.
With his soft way of talking, almost inaudible at times, it was easy to forget you were doing what Low desired. In 2003, he persuaded his Arab friends to help him set up a tour around the Middle East, introducing him to the richest families and most influential firms.
Low was especially obsequious with those with power, and whom he needed. Say the authors:
Since coming into Najib’s orbit, Low was always careful to remain subservient to the prime minister, calling him “my PM,” and this extended to Rosmah and her son.
Machiavellianism is Required
However, he showed early Machiavellian propensities, and he was happy to use those skills to find ways around the rules.
For example, he forged a letter from the embassy of Brunei to reserve tables at a hip and expensive club, and partied there with his friends.
Say the authors about that early experience:
It was a lesson that power and prestige—or at least the appearance of it—opened all kinds of doors.
6. Money Makes You Attractive (Even to Rich People)
Say the authors:
The rumor that Low was a billionaire with unlimited funds made him an attractive person to know. Even for DiCaprio, one of the world’s top-paid actors, with a sizable fortune of his own, the scope of Low’s purported wealth was alluring.
7. Learn Power Dynamics
I loved this email. Low send out to his bankers when he was asked for comp
“When good wealth creation is generated, as a matter of cultural respect and good fortune that arises from respect, we always give our parents the proceeds. This is part of our custom and culture.” In the email, Low explained that, per custom, it was up to the elders in question to decide what to do with the gift. “In this case, my father receives it as a token of gesture, respect and appreciation and decides to give it back to me for me to then subsequently provide a portion for the benefit of my family trust.” He then chided the Swiss bankers for their cultural naïveté: “I hope this clarifies as this is culturally sensitive and it would be taboo and bad luck otherwise and our family is very particular about respect of the elderly and being appreciative to family.” This bastardized picture of Chinese culture in no way adequately explained the need for such shady transfers. But Low had another card to play—he knew BSI had become dependent on his business and, faced with the prospect of losing it, would go to lengths to keep the money flowing. “I hope I do not need to keep explaining the same matter over and over again as our time is better spent generating wealth so that the AUM [Assets Under Management] in BSI Bank can be increased as opposed to providing answers for questions which have already been provided for previously. I fully understand and respect the requirement of compliance, but one should not be over burdening your customers [especially] when they have been addressed in the past.”
- Wished for even more details that really matter: how the fraud exactly worked
The book is long and had a lot of details.
But I cared less about the brand of clothes and wines he drank, and more about the details of how he pulled the scam.
There is something about the scam as well, but not as detailed as I had hoped.
- The authors infer a lot
The authors infer a lot about how Low learned and internalized that “being a crook is OK”.
For example, he says that studying alongside wealthy children of politicians who received kickbacks from businesses stirred in him a “moral relativism”. But based on what are they saying that?
To me that accounts to “psychologizing”. And the authors never even spoke to Low.
- Sometimes I disagreed with the author’s opinions, presented as facts
The authors say that the price of art auctions was “partly due to the innate worth of the painting, coupled with limited supply”.
To me, that’s nonsense.
Modern art is worthless in terms of “innate worth”, and it’s only worth is based on social trends. The supply of art is also everything but limited. A modern artist could poop in a tin and sell it as art (which actually happened).
- If a rich guy wants to keep his spending secret: beware
Many rich people spend as a way to gain status.
Reporters were invited to Low’s parties, but they couldn’t write about Low himself. Usually, when a rich man spends to attract attention, but doesn’t want his name public, there are good chances he might be hiding something.
- The world today offers more opportunities for hiding
For decades, the world was divided into two major spheres of influence: USSR, and the US/West.
But people who wanted to live the life had to depend on the West and US, since the USSR was communist, and most of the rest of the world was too poor.
With the rise of China and the rise of capitalism in Russia, now a global thief can steal and remain out of reach from the US and other Western countries while still enjoying a lavish lifestyle.
Steal a little, and they throw you in jail. Steal a lot, and they make you king
About Low, a guy who was all about getting out the most from social exchanges.
Low’s bashful manners belied a hard core of ambition the like of which the world rarely sees. Look more closely, and Low was not so much timid as quietly calculating, as if computing every human interaction, sizing up what he could provide for someone and what they, in turn, could do for him.
On women used as decorations for rich men:
The first of scores of young models wearing red dresses, some of whom handed out drinks and food, while others—in the crude language of nightclubs—acted as “ambient” decorations.
On men throwing money around (and women getting on their knees to pick it up):
After an early winning streak against the house, some of the Asian men began to throw chips around the room. Some of the Playmates, who were mingling on the sofas and around the table, chased after them, down on their hands and knees.
“Billion Dollar Whale” was a fascinating read, and I learned a lot from it.
Both in terms of social strategies and power dynamics, and in terms of how to navigate the financial system.