Advertisement

Great frauds in history: Robert Maxwell

Robert Maxwell looted millions from the pension fund of the Mirror Group, wiping out shareholders and condemning pensioners to poverty.

Robert Maxwell was born Jan Ludvik Hoch in modern day Ukraine (then part of Czechoslovakia) in 1923. He escaped to France during World War II and made his way to Britain, where he joined the British Army.

After buying the rights to distribute German academic papers, he took over a small academic publisher, which later became Pergamon Press. During the 1980s he aggressively expanded his business empire, with the result that, by the end of the decade, he owned a string of companies, including Macmillan Publishers, the Daily Mirror and New York Daily News.

What was the scam?

Having taken on large amounts of debt, and following the launch of a string of expensive failures, Maxwell was reduced to shunting money between his companies to give the impression they were profitable, repeatedly changing the dates on which they reported earnings, in order to fool auditors. When this wasn't enough to keep his empire going, he looted money from the pension fund of the Mirror Group in an attempt to prop up its share price.

What happened next?

With his businesses on the brink of collapse, Maxwell was reported missing from his yacht on 5 November 1991. His body was later discovered in the Atlantic Ocean, an apparent suicide (officially considered an accidental drowning). His bankers called in their loans, and his looting of the pension fund was discovered. By 1992 his sons Kevin and Ian were forced to declare bankruptcy.

Advertisement - Article continues below

In the end, Maxwell's firms were liquidated and his sons were put on trial for fraud (they were ultimately acquitted).

Lessons for investors

While Mirror Group shareholders were wiped out, arguably the biggest losers were the pensioners whohad £460m looted from their fund. Despite a partial government bailout, as wellas money from the investment bankers who advised Maxwell, most pensioners had toaccept a 50% cut in the valueof their pensions. Perhaps all this mess could have been avoided had the people dealing with Maxwell heeded the words of the government investigation of the shadowy dealings at Pergamon in the 1970s, which concluded that "he is not in our opinion a person who can be relied on to exercise proper stewardship of a public company".

Advertisement
Advertisement

Recommended

Companies cut back on their pensions bills
Personal finance

Companies cut back on their pensions bills

Britvic is the latest firm hoping a cheaper inflation index will cut pension costs. David Prosser reports.
28 Aug 2019
Covid-19 sees a surge in early retirement
Pensions

Covid-19 sees a surge in early retirement

The number of people taking early retirement has risen by more than ever before, says the ONS – in part because of problems in the labour market cause…
7 Aug 2020
We're all going to have to be a lot more flexible
UK Economy

We're all going to have to be a lot more flexible

As the world gets older, we'll all have to retire later and finance it for longer. That's going to take a major rethink about an awful lot of things, …
6 Aug 2020
The MoneyWeek Podcast: how to age well and profit from the “longevity dividend”
Investment strategy

The MoneyWeek Podcast: how to age well and profit from the “longevity dividend”

Merryn talks to economist and author Andrew J Scott and discusses how we can profit from the "longevity dividend" as we live longer; why we need to re…
6 Aug 2020

Most Popular

Don’t despair on dividends – these companies could be set to bring them back
Income investing

Don’t despair on dividends – these companies could be set to bring them back

The value of dividends paid out by UK stocks has plummeted this year as companies “rebase” their payment policies. But things could soon start to look…
6 Aug 2020
Gold hits the big $2,000 level – are Aim miners about to play catch up?
Gold

Gold hits the big $2,000 level – are Aim miners about to play catch up?

With the price of gold shooting through $2,000 an ounce, the yellow metal looks unstoppable. Things are so bullish, even Aim-listed junior gold miners…
5 Aug 2020
Too embarrassed to ask: what is “real return”?
Too embarrassed to ask

Too embarrassed to ask: what is “real return”?

MoneyWeek's latest "too embarrassed to ask” video explains what a real return is and why it's so important for investors.
5 Aug 2020