This Monday, Columbia Journalism School hosted WSJ reporters and Pulitzer finalists Tom Wright and Bradley Hope to discuss their new book, “Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Wall Street, Hollywood, and the World.” Released today, it’s the story of mega-financier and networking genius Jho Low and how they discovered his orchestration of the greatest heist in financial history. New Bwogger Andrew Wang got in on the drama, and what he learned will either blow your mind, make you filthy rich, or land you in jail.
The wildest party in Vegas. The Wolf of Wall Street. Miranda Kerr’s diamonds. Paris Hilton. The rise and fall of Malaysia’s ruling party. Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Manhattan apartment. Goldman Sachs. Leonardo DiCaprio’s WhatsApp. A Saudi Arabian prince. Billions of dollars stolen.
What if I told you that the one thing they all had in common was this man driving Busta Rhymes around in a rickshaw? Buckle up, folks. You can’t make this shit up.
It’s 2009. Low has won the favor of the soon-to-be first lady of Malaysia, Rosmah Mansor, in an effort to bring Middle Eastern investments to the country. With Prime Minister Najib Razak elected soon after, Low’s relationship with Mansor gets him his own sovereign wealth fund containing $17 billion in assets. Targeting Saudi Arabia’s sovereign oil wealth, Low siphons a billion dollars out of the Malaysian slush fund 1MDB in a deal with a Saudi Arabian prince. He gets away with $700 million overnight.
Now we’re in New York. Low has become “the biggest whale anyone’s ever seen,” and begins building a Hollywood empire with massive spending habits in a city rocked by the financial crisis. There, he meets Leonardo DiCaprio, and after partying with him in a Palazzo penthouse in Vegas alongside 22 playmates, finances The Wolf of Wall Street using stolen funds. Low, “The Asian Wolf of Wall Street,” pays Paris Hilton to dance with him, sends birthday champagne to Lindsay Lohan, and begins dating the then-recently single Miranda Kerr after pushing out an IPO for her skincare line. He buys Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s apartment for $30 million.
Goldman Sachs wants to play, too. Working with Goldman partner Tim Leissner (who is in plea deal talks as of 2018) Low’s Malaysian fund hires them to sell bonds. According to Wright, the three bond deals they make net Goldman more than 600 million dollars. That’s 200 times what an investment bank would usually make. Low’s own fortune, on top of the billions made in other deals, is laundered through offshore sites in Singapore and Switzerland.
But no rager lasts forever. In 2014, a disgruntled whistleblower who once worked at the Saudi prince’s company releases private 1MDB emails after Low fails to pay him. As financial reporters, Wright and Hope begin following the money, and after countless documents, emails, and interviews, they eventually discover that the Malaysian Prime Minister had received a billion dollars in his private bank account as part of Low’s operations. In May 2018, the Malaysian people decisively voted out Razak, and he currently faces corruption charges.
Wright and Hope don’t stop there. After interviewing a low-level 1MDB employee to the point of exhaustion, they also obtain a hard drive containing information that includes Leonardo DiCaprio’s secret WhatsApp. In it, they find a picture of a wolf and the caption, “Wolves don’t lose sleep over the opinions of sheep.”
But how did all of this happen? Wright and Hope pointed to Low’s genius as one compelling reason. “What’s really brilliant about him is that he understands these gray areas that are not really well-policed, so what he did was entangle people so deeply in the scandal that they became the people who were helping to cover it up,” said Hope. Wright added that Low was “probably the best networker on the planet.”
The Jho Low story has the perfect elements of a modern fiction—posh parties, Hollywood hookups, an international heist—but financial documents, factual reporting, and credible sources form the nucleus of Billion Dollar Whale. In the Q&A following the story, Wright and Bradley spoke about the personal considerations of investigating a scandal fraught with corruption from their perspective as financial reporters. “Keep your ego out of your reporting,” Wright advised. “It’s important not to be an activist.” This motto proved crucial when they took on interviews with disagreeable sources. According to the WSJ, their book draws on three years of research, hundreds of interviews, tens of thousands of documents, and hundreds of thousands of emails. The book has already received many reviews, including one from a certain individual named Jho Low, who called it “guilt by lifestyle and trial by media at its worst.”
The fraudster financier extraordinaire is currently on the run. He’s living in China, working with lawyers to take Billion Dollar Whale off of bookshelves. He’s been successful so far in the U.K. As for our beloved celebrities, Leo is returning his Wolf of Wall Street profits, Miranda Kerr her diamonds, and Kate Upton her Birkin bags. 1MDB will not finish paying its debt until 2039, and Malaysians have been forced to rethink their democracy in the face of an overtly corrupt political leadership that stole billions of dollars from its people. It is unknown whether our equally beloved Goldman investment bankers will go to jail, though we’ll be paying close attention to their LinkedIn headlines.
As of now, the billion dollar whale is still unbeached, his yachts yet unsunk. But if there’s a lesson to be learned, Jack from Titanic said it best: wolves don’t lose sleep over the opinions of sheep—except when the sheep are investigative journalists with official DOJ allegations, court records, and corroborated sources.
So close, Jack. So close.
Photo via Twitter