Billion Dollar Media

A listening list of megascams

A few weeks ago, as Gamestop was hitting $400 a share, Bitcoin was soaring past $40,000, and Clubhouse joined the unicorn club-house, I was troubled. I was amazed. And I was confused. How have we so completely divorced price from value? The answer is software and the internet. Today, we can generate demand for anything across the globe. Demand generation can create piles of cash faster than you can say “chicken tendies” even when there is nothing of inherent value anywhere to be seen.

As much as I write about building things to last and exalt craft with a capital “C”, I have to admit that I’m an absolute sucker for stories about people that have amassed huge sums of money legally or illegally through demand generation and financial system manipulation. Today I’ll list a bunch of guilty pleasure listens that cover stories of people that have worked the system to generate billions of dollars. I’m such a fan of this kind of billion dollar media that all I had to do to make this recommendation list is browse through my own media library. If you know of a good story like this that I’m missing, would you please let me know?

Podcasts:

  • The recent Gamestop shenanigans helped me understand once and for all that stock prices have absolutely no real tether to reality. We’ve traditionally trusted analysts to tell us what a stock is worth but traditions are so passé. You’ve probably already consumed enough media about the GME thing since it was three weeks ago’s news, but for completeness, I’m adding thisPlanet Money episode about GME because it was the best ‘splainer I came across. It got into good detail about how the price manipulation worked and who the characters involved were. As a bonus, it ends with a song sung to the tune of the sea shanty (also old news) “Wellerman.”

  • The Missing Cryptoqueen is the story of cryptocurrency fraud reaching into the billions of dollars and preying upon the world’s most vulnerable people—mostly outside the United States. The perpetrator of the fraud, Dr. Ruja Ignatova (pronounced in a few different ways throughout the podcast) has disappeared, but the money keeps pouring in. It’s an open-ended show because the hosts are still investigating. One of the show’s most titillating bits is also its greatest weakness. The hosts hint at the scam having a connection to Russian oligarchs, but they come nowhere near making a solid case for it. If they’re ever able to really make that case, this show will be an all-time classic. Even with this shortcoming, it’s very well-investigated and told and 100 percent worth a listen.

  • The Dream (Season 1): I really loved the first season of The Dream. It was recommended to me by the wonderful editors of the Bello Collective. MLMs (ahem, Ponzi schemes) are the earliest form of pure demand generation. My favorite part of the reporting is the inside look at how MLMs have skirted regulation by embedding themselves with powerful politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Audiobooks:

  • Billion Dollar Whale: This book is ridiculous! Do you want to read about a Malaysian guy who had just enough family wealth to berth him a spot at Wharton, and then used his connections from Wharton to propel him into a scheme to steal $5 billion from Malaysia and governments in the Middle East with help from Goldman Sachs? This is a story about Jho Low, who bankrolled the filming of the Wolf of Wall Street while making Jordan Belfort look like the little league of financial fraud. The most interesting part of the story is not the mega-huge graft that Low managed in the later parts of his scheme, but the very first swindle. Two years out of Wharton, he figured out how to trick a bank into lending him enough money to buy land and construction companies and then trick another Malaysian businessman into buying those companies from him. In a few months, with nothing but some high-placed relationships and a willingness to create a facade of truth, he made $100 million. It’s wholly amazing, and Jho Low’s skill at creating demand by putting himself between powerful people is unlike anything I’ve ever known.

  • I lump Billion Dollar Loser andBad Blood together because they are both stories about getting VCs frothy. Billion Dollar Loser is about Adam Neumann of WeWork and Bad Blood is about Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos. Holmes and Neumann have a skill in common with Jho Low from Billion Dollar Whale. They both are amazing at convincing people with unimaginable wealth that they have the key to even greater riches. The difference, though, is that Holmes and Neumman focused their talents on VCs instead of institutional investors and claimed that they themselves knew how to build the companies worth investing in.

    But in the spirit of this edition of the newsletter, both Neumann and Holmes were far better at demand generation than value creation. They both struggled to meet deadlines and left promises unfulfilled in their actual businesses but waxed lyrically to investors in a way that got those investors to compete with each other and accept ever-higher valuations of their respective companies. Both audiobooks are well written (and recorded) and highly entertaining, but you can skip Bad Blood if you’ve seen the documentaries.

  • Don’t read the Elon Musk biography. I don’t particularly care for Musk and would happily recommend a book that had an objective view of his relationship with the truth, but this biography isn’t it. It’s Musk adulation at its worst. I put it on this list, though, because Musk’s life fits the “magical demand generation” theme and is an interesting counterstory to the ones of Elizabeth Holmes and Adam Nuemann. Even though Tesla and SpaceX actually do make very valuable, perhaps even Earth-changing products, it wasn’t always certain that they would succeed. Elon played very loose with the truth around timelines, production numbers, and valuations to get investment. More than once, he was on the brink of losing everything, but his skill at demand generation got him the money he needed to survive these near failures. He can generate demand for absolutely nothing, as we saw in the recent dogecoin price spike.

  • Bitcoin Billionaires: This is Ben Mezrich’s biography of the Winklevoss twins that focuses on their post-Facebook lives as Bitcoin shills. It is truly incredible that they made a billion dollars from their involvement in Facebook and then did it again with their early involvement in Bitcoin. It’s lightning striking twice-type luck, and in true Mezrich style, it reads like a thriller. What comes out is an amazing ability at, you guessed it, demand generation. Bitcoin is the purest example of the power of demand generation because actual Bitcoin is nothing. It’s an idea. It doesn’t do anything for anyone. You can’t make anything with it. You can solve some dark web transactional issues with it, but it’s not even all that great for that because of its wildly fluctuating value. The fact that as of this writing the market capitalization of bitcoin is$1 trillion is out of this world. Is it useful at all to the world that so much capital is poised to do nothing in Bitcoin wallets? Definitely read this book.

  • The Spider Network is about Tom Hayes and his compatriots as they conspired to control the moment of the LIBOR index while trading on the direction that LIBOR moves. This story is tangential to demand generation because, among his conspirators, Tom was absolutely creating some demand to be on the inside of this knowledge. But really, the demand to trade bonds is ceaseless and dependable, and that’s why knowing the movement of interest rates in advance is a great way to cheat at investing. I enjoyed some of the financial wonkery in this story and shook my head in frustration at the façade of regulation. To enjoy this one I think you might need to be as deep down the dark rabbit hole of scammy investment stories as I am.

  • Flash Boys: If the Spyder network isn’t too finance-geeky for you, then Flash Boys certainly isn’t. The story is Michael Lewis’s look at high frequency trading (HFT), how it works, and what it has done to the stock market. In a word, f$cked it. More than anything else, algorithmic and high-frequency trading have helped divorce stock prices from the underlying companies. And they’ve made it easier than ever for famous people to generate demand for whatever stocks they want. The ability for HFTs to see into the future and trade against the direction a stock price means they can make a tiny bit of money every microsecond with no risk, and this tiny bit of money adds up and up and up to millions. And before you know it, it’s just the rent the financial system pays to operate. I think it’s a terrible shame, but if I’m being completely honest—as a software developer, part of me is jealous of the people that figured this out and locked everyone else out of their advantage.

  • The Big Short is a classic. If you only ever watched the movie, there’s a scene in it where Margot Robie briefly explains some financial terms. That really angered me because it was those things that made the story so fascinating, and the message was, “Here’s the boring part which is too difficult to explain in a movie so you can just look at a hot chick.” Terrible. The book is absolutely nothing like that crap. Definitely read it to be wowed by the incredible nationwide demand generation drug that the entire banking sector was smoking in 2006. It’s such a pure example of detaching value from price because bankers collectively inflated the total value of mortgages and the financial instruments associated with them to way, way more than the underlying value of the real estate in the entire country. It’s fascinating and terrible.

And that last thing that I just said in relation to The Big Short is really at the heart of why I find this whole realm so interesting. We have people living in poverty around the world, and we have a small percentage of people with so much wealth that can’t even deploy it without making shit up. Just making bullshit up to multiply their money that has no relation to any physical thing or act of service on the planet. How the hell did this happen? How can we be both so rich and so poor at the same time? And is there ever an end to it? Does wealth generation just go forever based on nothing at all? It’s not a bubble if it never pops, right? I honestly have no answers to this question, and I’m not alone. Eric Newcomer recently interviewed Bill Gurley, who was famous for saying that there were too many unicorns, and pushed him on why there are still more and more and when will the bubble burst? And Gurley could only say, “Look, it's more of a gamblers’ game today, than five years ago, and than it was 10 years ago.”

If this is fascinating to you and makes you angry too but also causes a weird twinge of jealousy because you’re ambitious and you’re just as smart as some VC that lucks their way into billions, please join me to powwow on Discord. I’ll enjoy the conversation so much that I might struggle to meet my other Timber commitments.

Thanks for reading,

--Jon Christensen