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The Pyramid of Lies: Lex Greensill and the Billion-Dollar Scandal

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When the company finally collapsed it exposed the revolving door between Westminster and big business and how David Cameron was allowed to lobby ministers for cash that would save Greensill's doomed business. Instead, Credit Suisse and Japan's SoftBank are nursing billions of dollars in losses, a German bank is under criminal investigation, and thousands of jobs are at risk.

And so that's part of what he's doing. The other piece of it is to say, hey, I've got this super duper new technology, which will make this thing run a lot more smoothly. The reality actually was slightly different. The technology mostly wasn't Greensill Capital, there was very little technology at Greensill at all. And he was relying largely on third-party technology platforms. And the other reality that was different was that much of Greensill's business was not supply chain finance at all. It was just lending, unsecured lending usually to risky companies. Greensill achieved its rapid growth by becoming, in effect, a lender of last resort. A handful of risky borrowers came to dominate its business, the largest of which was Sanjeev Gupta’s steel group, to which Greensill kept lending long past the point where it was obvious there was no ability to repay. As time went on, more and more loans started to go sour, and the insurers started to pull out. The business finally collapsed when the new Japanese owners of its last insurer (a small, bamboozled Australian outfit) called time. Modern corruption is a refined process for sophisticated people. Urbane actors enter the political equivalent of a “buy now, pay later” (BNPL) agreement. Politicians or civil servants grant a shady financial institution or incompetent arms manufacturer access to decision-making and public money. No agreement needs to have been reached. No wads of cash change hands. But after the civil servant retires or politician leaves parliament, he can expect an immensely rewarding job. The sole benefit of the multibillion collapse of Greensill Capital in 2021 was that it illuminated BNPL politics as no other scandal has. NATHAN HUNT: I have to wonder what on earth was the former Prime Minister of the U.K. David Cameron doing wrapped up in Greensill Capital. Why was he involved in this?

What distinguishes the Greensill saga from other corporate scandals such as the Guinness share-trading fraud of the 1980s or Robert Maxwell's misappropriation of pension funds is the way in which it encompasses, and taints, figures from the highest levels of politics and officialdom, most notably David Cameron and the former Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood. DUNCAN MAVIN: Yes, I think that's right. I think this is -- it's tempting sometimes to see these big kind of corporate scandals in terms of big systems and institutions. But at the heart of this one, is the guy Lex Greensill. And he's fascinating, a really divisive character. Some people I talked to said Lex is really charismatic and a genius. And other people I talked to said, stay away from Lex, things are going to go wrong. The Pyramid of Lies is not elegantly written. The breathless tone of some descriptions verges on comical: the Savoy, where Greensill holds a breakfast meeting, is “a 130-year-old art deco masterpiece, dubbed London’s 'most famous hotel’ and renowned as a favoured haunt of kings and presidents, Hollywood stars and fashionistas”. It is nonetheless worth reading as a meticulously researched and enjoyably lively account of this major financial scandal.

Duncan Mavin of Dow Jones joins the Essential Podcast to talk about his new book "The Pyramid of Lies: Lex Greensill and the Billion Dollar Scandal". Duncan discusses Greensill Capital and its collapse, which damaged the reputations of a former U.K. Prime Minister, prominent venture capitalists, and Credit Suisse. He also talks about the bizarre experience of reporting on a company where the red flags were obvious, and yet thoroughly ignored by investors. DUNCAN MAVIN: Yes. They were a very difficult group of people to deal with because Lex had this tendency to say things that weren't true. It's unusual in my experience that people will outright lie to your face as a journalist. In this case, there were people around Greensill who were doing that regularly. And not just Lex Greensill, not just his PR person, his spokesperson, but also lawyers who were acting for Greensill Capital and so on, would tell me things that later turned out to not be true or deny things that I took to them and tell me that I was wrong, only for it later to become apparent that I wasn't wrong. A few years ago, I made it into an intimate meeting at the "top table". Just me and the top brass. I had prepared copious notes to discuss the large deal that was imminent. But I hadn't prepared to discuss horse racing, the ownership of horses, or the best dogs to keep at stables.And he was clearly really, really ambitious. In his retelling later, and he told this story many, many times, what motivated him to get into supply chain finance. This is his version of events, was watching his parents struggle to get paid on time. So producing their agricultural produce and selling it to supermarkets who then failed to pay until 3 months later or 9 months later or [ over ] a long end. And that sort of left his parents short for a while. And so that in his retelling was that motivated him to say, I'm going to do this in a little guy. I'm going to sort this problem out. Greensill found it difficult to make any money doing it, and so started to finance riskier borrowers, taking out credit insurance to obviate the higher risk of default. The insurance allowed the loans to be marketed, misleadingly, as low-risk to investors.

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