Forget Charles Ponzi (and Bernie Madoff). Ivar Kreuger is the all-time fraud champ

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kreuger A lot of people have been calling Bernie Madoff’s apparent $50 billion Ponzi scheme the biggest financial fraud in history. Christopher McKenna, a business historian at Oxford University who stopped by TIME for a visit today, doubts it.

“I think Kreuger is bigger,” he says. “The question is how do you measure that. His losses were greater than the entire debt of Sweden at that time.”

Kreuger is Ivar Kreuger, the Swedish match-stick king (or tåndstick konung, as TIME put it in on the October 28, 1929 cover reproduced above). Kreuger’s global match empire survived the 1929 stock market crash, but as it unraveled in 1932 he killed himself, and the whole thing was subsequently revealed to be a giant pyramid scheme. When sociologists began developing their first theories of white collar crime in the 1930s. “they were basically referring to Kreuger,” says McKenna.

McKenna knows about all this stuff because, after writing an acclaimed history of management consulting (published in 2006) he set to work studying the history of white-collar crime. McKenna says one of his former professors tried to warn him off the subject because he worried that, in the post-Enron era, interest in the subject would fade. Guess not.

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