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The Suicide of Ivar Kreuger page 2

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So the process of undermining went on, even as fresh share issues were put on the market and "sold out." All. unknown to the thousands of shareholders, the values of their holdings were falling every day, even as they were rising in value on the markets of the world. Debts, far beyond the comprehension of the average intelligent man-in-the-street, were piling up in the maze of ledgers behind the scenes, each debt being cancelled out by one or more mythical assets from somewhere else. Whenever a leading question was put to Kreuger, he had an answer for it. Whenever things came to a head he either found a perfectly good bluff to answer the problem, or else managed to entangle some one else so completely that the unwilling helper was bound to silence. He lived in extreme extravagance, and, as year followed year, his pay-roll to blackmailers must have grown out of all proportions. But that, like many other details of his private life, will always remain a mystery. That he was the victim of blackmailers is now common knowledge. There is even a rumour, more than probably true, that one of his employees went one better than blackmail during the negotiation of a large state loan. Entrusted with the handling of certain negotiable securities to the apparent value of many thousands of pounds, this astute person simply appropriated the lot, turning them into cash. Kreuger knew, and could say nothing, because he realised that the thief knew too much about those very securities.

The most amazing coup in his whole life of bluff was the affair of the Italian Treasury Bonds, which he mentioned so casually when the Garanta Company's books showed that huge deficit. Kreuger, match king and apparent millionaire, most respected and apparent colossus of finance, actually forged those bonds himself, in the privacy of his own private quarters, where none ever dared disturb him. They were (apparently) worth no less than 28,500,000.

To any normal person such a forgery seems utterly out of all reason and impossible. To Kreuger it was simplicity itself. In order to obtain the necessary signatures he wrote to two high officials in the Italian Government, and when he received their replies he had rubber stamps made of the "autographs." The copper plates for the bonds he also ordered, and sent to a printing firm in Stockholm. He himself put two and two together. Once forged, the bonds were, of course, looked upon as valuable securities. It only remained for him to make sure that such securities were never talked about. One word out of place, and the world would have known him for what he really was, for an international deal of that magnitude would have made headlines to say the very least of it - and those headlines would probably have been the first that Italy would have known about her part in the deal! But Kreuger knew his men, because he knew that they expected big things of him. Quite calmly he impressed upon his associates that the very strictest secrecy was a condition of the deal, and, accordingly, his directors never breathed a word.

Kreuger dealt in millions, and his private debts soon totalled millions. To pay his debts he resorted to every conceivable form of trickery and jugglery; and so well did he do it that he had eaten the heart out of the majority of his shareholders' money without one of them suspecting that a thing was wrong. He got away with a cool four million pounds by transferring one company's bonds to one of his banks as some form of security. As soon as the money was on deposit he drew out that amount on his own account. There was no one to question the transaction, because no one knew the reason for either side of the deal. A further twelve million pounds disappeared, marked down on a balance sheet as a loan made to Spain. No one was any the wiser at the time. Six more millions also vanished when he sold out some debentures, explaining 'that the money was needed for purchasing an interest in another company. Twenty million pounds by three simple, audacious tricks - the kind of petty tricks that any confidence trickster might be afraid to attempt because of their very obviousness. But those instances, big as they are, are only outstanding examples from the vast entanglement of Kreuger's nefarious dealings. He began in a small way, and his crooked dealings soon got out of hand, swelling and expanding until they were past control. If ever there had been a hope of "replacing the five shillings in the till" it vanished in the first few years of trickery. And, as the end drew near, as his efforts to raise more and more money became more and more desperate, so did Kreuger's schemes become more audacious. Even while the match industry lay in ruins about him, only the merest shell of bluff hiding the truth from the world, Kreuger was planning to interest himself in telephone monopolies. But he was finished.

Instalments of promised loans to various countries were falling due, six millions pounds here, five and a half million there. Dates for repayments to banks drew nearer and nearer. Kreuger must have more money. But where could he get it? At home he was being refused further credit - not because his honesty was doubted, but because financial men doubted whether it was wise for him to undertake further obligations with so much already in hand. So he went to America. That was in March, 1932. He needed about 20,000,000. But his trip was an abject failure. In effect he got nothing. Fortunately, however, or perhaps one should say unfortunately, the Swedish Prime Minister had intervened on his behalf during his absence, and the Swedish banks, including the State Bank, agreed to grant a further credit of some 800,000. But there was one condition in that promise, and it spelt disaster for Kreuger. He was to allow representatives of the banks to investigate the financial position of the Kreuger concerns. The conference was fixed for March 13, and as Kreuger had to be present, a cable was sent to him, asking him to return. He knew then, he must have known, that the game was up. And it must have been then that he made up his mind what he was going to do.

It was the time of slumps, and Kreuger shares were suffering with the rest, but there was still no fear for their real value. Back in Europe, Kreuger journeyed to Paris to meet his directors. Awkward questions were asked. There was an angry scene. For the first time Kreuger lost his superb poise. He left, slamming the door behind him. He went out into the streets and bought a revolver.

On Saturday, March 12, 1932, Kreuger was to have met a gathering of important men. His secretary, Miss Bokman was the last person to see him alive. She left him making her way to the hotel where the meeting was to have been held. Kreuger was late. Calls were put through to his flat, but there was no reply. Anxiously, his secretary and one of his fellow-directors returned to see what was delaying him. They found him dead. A single shot through his heart had ended everything. Kreuger was gone. The only man who could, if he had wished, have explained to the full all the details of his colossal swindles, was dead. It remained for the world to crash around the ears of the tens of thousands who had put their trust in his schemes, and their money into his shares.

Kreuger's own debts and liabilities totalled more than fifty million pounds. Thousands of shareholders were ruined, and a trail of broken lives and suicides followed his passing. Kreuger, son and grandson of honest, hardworking match-makers, made countless millions from those little bits of wood. Had he gone straight there is no telling the might that could have been his, but he chose to take what was at first the easier path, and, instead, he made himself a name as the greatest crook of all time. The easy path at length became so tortuous and complicated that not even his master brain could stand up to the strain. Sooner than face the disgrace that was his due, he snuffed out his life, even as one might have blown out one of his little matches.

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