The world’s most unproductive entrepreneur

The new book by Wall Street Journal reporters Tom Wright & Bradley Hope, Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the Worldis amazing. It must be one of the most detailed accounts of high-level corruption ever produced. I had followed their reporting on Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal, and generally understood that the financier Jho Low had colluded with former prime minister Najib Razak to embezzle ungodly amounts of money from the state development fund.

But what I had not really grasped before reading this book is that Low did not just steal money that belonged to the Malaysian state and people–he actually organized the creation of the 1MDB fund, and effectively controlled it. The 1MDB fund in fact never had any other purpose or rationale than as a vehicle for corruption.  The scheme got its start when Low approached the sultan of Terengganu, cleverly exploiting the opportunities for corruption in Malaysia’s system of hereditary monarchies:

He’d built a quick reputation in Malaysia as a deal maker, but, as always, Low was keenly aware of how his success stacked up on a global stage. Low had observed the power and status of Khaldoon Al Mubarak of Mubadala, who ran the Emirati sovereign wealth fund. A fund like that had billions of dollars in investments, not mere millions.

Why, Jho Low wondered, couldn’t he put together a sovereign wealth fund of his own—one based in Malaysia? But where could he find the initial funds? Traditional sovereign wealth funds invest oil profits, and so Low honed in on the Malaysian state of Terengganu, which was rich in offshore oil and gas fields.

But it didn’t take long for that local fund to become a national initiative. In August 2009, Najib announced the launch of the 1MDB fund at a dinner with the crown prince of Abu Dhabi:

The 1MDB fund was simply the Terengganu Investment Authority, which had recently raised $1.4 billion in Islamic bonds, transformed into a federal entity. The 1MDB fund would be responsible for repaying the bonds. Once Najib came to power, Low convinced him to take over the fund, broaden its remit, and look for Middle East backing.

Low’s pitch for the 1MDB fund was basically that it would be a completely unaccountable vehicle for the prime minister to dish out development projects and political patronage to benefit himself and his supporters:

The 1MDB fund was supposed to invest in green energy and tourism to create high-quality jobs for all Malaysians, whether of Malay, Indian, or Chinese heritage, hence the slogan “1Malaysia.” The fund, Low promised the prime minister, would suck in money from the Middle East and borrow more from global markets. But he had another selling point, one which Najib, who was ambitious, found extremely attractive: Why not also use the fund as a political-financing vehicle? Profits from 1MDB would fill a war chest that Najib could use to pay off political supporters and voters, restoring UMNO’s popularity, Low promised.

Over the next few years, Low and his conspirators would use 1MDB to borrow billions of dollars from global capital markets, and would simply take much of the proceeds for themselves. To achieve all this required Low to do constant networking, set up immensely complicated financial and legal arrangements, and splash out tens of millions of dollars along the way to win friends and influence people. Low in fact worked hard at his corruption, and displayed unmistakable entrepreneurial flair–a huge amount of effort deployed to make his country poorer not richer.

Previously I had thought of corruption as mostly acting like a drag or tax on the economy: the extraction of bribes to approve a construction permit or dismiss traffic fines. My imagination had not quite encompassed the idea that corruption could be a motivating force for huge economic initiatives that would be entirely wasteful. So one lesson from the book seems to be that I have been insufficiently cynical about human frailty.

Low’s tale also made me recall the distinction that William Baumol made between productive and unproductive entrepreneurs, in a famous 1990 article:

The basic hypothesis is that, while the total supply of entrepreneurs varies among societies, the productive contribution of the society’s entrepreneurial activities varies much more because of their allocation between productive activities such as innovation and largely unproductive activities such as rent seeking or organized crime. This allocation is heavily influenced by the relative payoffs society offers to such activities. …

If entrepreneurs are defined, simply, to be persons who are ingenious and creative in finding ways that add to their own wealth, power, and prestige, then it is to be expected that not all of them will be overly concerned with whether an activity that achieves these goals adds much or little to the social product or, for that matter, even whether it is an actual impediment to production (this notion goes back, at least, to Veblen). …

There are a variety of roles among which the entrepreneur’s efforts can be reallocated, and some of those roles do not follow the constructive and innovative script that is conventionally attributed to that person. Indeed, at times the entrepreneur may even lead a parasitical existence that is actually damaging to the economy.

Baumol’s article cited many interesting historical examples of unproductive entrepreneurship, but his contemporary examples were all a bit dull: he mentions tax evasion and corporate lawsuits. Low’s audacious scheme to create a sovereign wealth fund in order to plunder it surely makes him the paragon of twenty-first-century unproductive entrepreneurship.

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