The best books on financial schemes

Frank Partnoy Author Of The Match King: Ivar Kreuger, the Financial Genius Behind a Century of Wall Street Scandals
By Frank Partnoy

Who am I?

Frank Partnoy is the Adrian A. Kragen Professor of Law at UC Berkeley, where he co-runs an annual conference on financial fraud and teaches business law. He has written four trade press books (WAITThe Match KingInfectious Greed, and F.I.A.S.C.O.), dozens of scholarly publications, and multiple articles each for The AtlanticThe New York Review of BooksHarvard Business Review, and The Wall Street Journal, as well as more than fifty opinion pieces for The New York Times and the Financial Times. Partnoy has appeared on 60 Minutes and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and has testified as an expert before both houses of Congress. He is a member of the Financial Economists Roundtable and has been an international research fellow at Oxford University since 2010.


I wrote...

The Match King: Ivar Kreuger, the Financial Genius Behind a Century of Wall Street Scandals

By Frank Partnoy,

Book cover of The Match King: Ivar Kreuger, the Financial Genius Behind a Century of Wall Street Scandals

What is my book about?

At the height of the roaring '20s, Swedish emigre Ivar Kreuger made a fortune raising money in America and loaning it to Europe in exchange for matchstick monopolies. His enterprise was a rare success story throughout the Great Depression. Yet after his suicide in 1932, it became clear that Kreuger was not all he seemed: evidence surfaced of fudged accounting figures, off-balance-sheet accounting, even forgery. He created a raft of innovative financial products-- many of them precursors to instruments wreaking havoc in today's markets. In this gripping financial biography, Frank Partnoy recasts the life story of a remarkable yet forgotten genius in ways that force us to re-think our ideas about the wisdom of crowds, the invisible hand, and the free and unfettered market.

The books I picked & why

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J R

By William Gaddis,

Book cover of J R

Why this book?

I read J R the first time in college, and it was the ideal combination of challenging, cynical, illuminating – and hilarious. The novel is a cult classic among well-read Wall Street types, but be warned: it’s 726 pages of almost entirely dialogue, with not much to guide you about who is speaking or where. Once you figure out what Gaddis is up to, the writing becomes immersive and you join a wild ride with the eponymous sixth-grader, who uses the school’s payphone between classes to trade surplus picnic forks, free catalog samples, and eventually controlling stakes in major companies. J R is one of those books you’ll be proud to finish, and never forget.


Memoirs Of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

By Charles Mackay,,

Book cover of Memoirs Of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Why this book?

This is the oldest book on my list, a nineteenth-century compilation of lunacy of all sorts, with a focus on financial lunacy. Mackay aptly compares widespread mass delusions (think Nostradamus, or alchemy) to financial bubbles, including the frenzies surrounding the South Sea Company in England and tulip bulbs in Holland. Some scholars question the historical accuracy of Mackay’s stories, particularly about valuable tulip bulbs being accidentally eaten, but he has the money quote of all time regarding financial scandals: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds. It will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” If you want a more scholarly description of how speculative bubbles form and burst, try Charles P. Kindleberger’s Manias, Panics, and Crashes. But if you want to be shocked and entertained, read Mackay.


The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron

By Peter Elkind, Bethany McLean,

Book cover of The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron

Why this book?

We shouldn’t forget about the collapse of Enron, and this is the definitive book on the company, the one that has survived the test of time. All of the living Enron executives who were sentenced to prison are now out, so it’s a good time to take a look at them, not only to realize how gripping their stories still are, but to see how much they parallel some shenanigans in the markets today. Many companies continue to use accounting schemes that are similar to Enron’s, so it’s worth going back inside Enron, even if all you want is a how-to lesson. The book was adapted into a documentary film, but so you can read the book first, and then see the movie.


The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust

By Diana B. Henriques,

Book cover of The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust

Why this book?

This book also was made into a film, a feature with Robert De Nirro starring as Bernie Madoff. It also is definitive, a meticulously researched account of what is still, in dollar terms, the largest pyramid scheme in modern history. Henriques interviewed Madoff in person, and she skillfully tells his story, along with truly stunning details about how he pulled off the scheme, and for so long. When you finish reading, you likely will want Madoff to spend even more than 100 years in prison, the sentence he received for harming thousands of investors in an epic multi-billion dollar fraud.


Once in Golconda: The Great Crash of 1929 and its aftershocks

By John Brooks,

Book cover of Once in Golconda: The Great Crash of 1929 and its aftershocks

Why this book?

There should be at least one book about the 1920s on this list, and this one deserves mention because it elegantly brings to life several of the most interesting characters from that era. There are some dubious ones, such as Jesse Livermore, the “Boy Plunger” who operated bucket shops, shady financial firms that manipulated stocks with fake news. And there are more legitimate leaders of the era: Pierpont Morgan’s son, Jack, and his brainier partner, Tom Lamont, and the power brokers of Kuhn Loeb. Brooks vividly skewers all of them. He misspelled “Golkonda,” but the essence of his story nails the excesses of the era, and is an apt reminder of how much wealth and economic inequality can result from the Federal Reserve going wild with loose monetary policy.


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