Great frauds in history: the downfall of Ferdinand Ward – the "Napoleon of finance"

Ferdinand Ward launched a Ponzi-style scheme based on fictitious government contracts, bringing down the Marine National Bank.

Ferdinand Ward was born in New York in 1851. He was dismissed from various clerical jobs in his early working life until finding a post as secretary to the superintendent of one of the New York commodity exchanges. A marriage to the daughter of a wealthy merchant allowed him to start speculating in commodities, and he had some initial success. By 1880 he had become established enough to set up his own brokerage, Grant & Ward, in partnership with Ulysses “Buck” Grant Jr, the son of former president Grant, and James Fish, who ran the Marine National Bank and was a friend of his late father-in-law.

What was the scam?

Ward quickly dominated the partnership, making all the decisions, and persuaded Grant Jr and his father to invest another $200,000 into the business. When this capital was squandered through bad investments, Ward simply altered the books to give the impression that the firm was making money. Greedy for cash to fuel an extravagant lifestyle, Ward then raised yet more money by launching a Ponzi-style scheme based on fictitious government contracts. Ward promised to pay investors interest rates of 10% a month, but no money was in fact invested, and investors were paid with funds raised from new depositors.

What happened next?

Fish’s Marine National Bank had heavily invested in Grant & Ward, financing this with a loan of $1.6m from New York City. By April 1884, the New York City comptroller decided to reduce the city’s deposits with the bank. Despite an emergency loan of $80,000 from the tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt (underwritten by the former president), the bank collapsed, causing a minor financial panic and exposing Ward’s scam. Ward, who had briefly been known as the “Napoleon of finance”, quickly became the “best-hated man in the United States” and spent nearly seven years in jail.

Lessons for investors

The creditors of the Marine National Bank were able to recover only half the $5.2m ($141m in today’s money) that the bank owed when it went bankrupt. Those who had invested with Grant & Ward recovered virtually nothing of the $14.5m ($393m) supposedly in their accounts when it collapsed (much of this sum represented fictitious profits that had been reinvested). The former president Grant was not involved with the scam, but his family connection was taken as a badge of respectability. Never invest just because a scheme has celebrity backing. 

Recommended

Too embarrassed to ask: what is short selling?
Too embarrassed to ask

Too embarrassed to ask: what is short selling?

Short sellers are often accused of unfairly driving share prices down to make a quick buck. But short selling is a perfectly legitimate – if risky – t…
26 Jan 2021
Forget rebalancing – ditch your losers, not your winners
Sponsored

Forget rebalancing – ditch your losers, not your winners

Investors are often told to regularly rebalance their portfolio and take profits from their winning holdings. But that can be a mistake, says Max King…
26 Jan 2021
A lesson for value investors from investor Howard Marks
Investment strategy

A lesson for value investors from investor Howard Marks

Value investors need to open their minds, says US investor Howard Marks. But why is he saying it now?
25 Jan 2021
Peter Cowgill: the force behind a fashion phenomenon
People

Peter Cowgill: the force behind a fashion phenomenon

Peter Cowgill became the accountant for a small sports shop in the Pennines in the early 1980s. Now, JD Sports is one of the most formidable forces on…
23 Jan 2021

Most Popular

The FTSE 100 is set for a makeover with an influx of new tech stocks
UK stockmarkets

The FTSE 100 is set for a makeover with an influx of new tech stocks

The FTSE 100 – the dullest index in the world – is about to reinvent itself as a host of new firms list on the market. The change is long overdue, say…
24 Jan 2021
Why we won’t see a house-price crash in 2021
House prices

Why we won’t see a house-price crash in 2021

Lockdown sent house prices berserk as cooped up home-workers fled for bigger properties in the country. And while they won’t rise quite as much this y…
18 Jan 2021
Think Tesla is a bubble? This might be the best way to bet on it bursting
Oil

Think Tesla is a bubble? This might be the best way to bet on it bursting

The huge rise in Tesla’s share price means that, by market value, it’s now the sixth-largest company in the US and and the world’s biggest car-maker. …
25 Jan 2021