Great frauds in history: Philip Musica AKA "Dr Coster"

On the surface “Dr Coster” appeared to be a successful businessman, but in reality he was skimming money from his medical supplies company.

Philip Musica was born in New York City in 1884 and dropped out of school at the age of 14 to help out at his father’s grocery store. Within two years he was in charge, handing everyday operations to his younger brother while he set about undercutting competitors by dodging tariffs on imports. Thus began a three decade career as a swindler. He had two spells in jail for bribery and forgery in 1909 and 1913, getting his second sentenced commuted by volunteering to work as a government agent during World War I. In this period he changed his identity several times, eventually settling on Dr F. Donald Coster, and founding the Adelphi Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Company, as a front for bootlegging. By 1926 he had made enough money to buy McKesson & Robbins, a struggling consumer-medicine firm.

What was the scam?

On the surface “Dr Coster” appeared to be a successful businessman, overcoming the Great Depression to turn McKesson & Robbins into a company with sales of $174m by 1937 (around $3bn in today’s money). However, at least $19m ($332m today) of this was fictitious – one of Musica’s brothers forged sales documents between McKesson’s Canadian subsidiary and a shell company created to enable Musica to skim money from the parent company .

What happened next?

McKesson’s treasurer, Julian Thompson, noticed that the Canadian subsidiary had never returned any of its large paper profits to the main company and so tried to persuade the board to liquidate part of the Canadian firm’s inventory to raise some cash. He found that, instead of the subsidiary making money for McKesson, McKesson was paying money to support the Canadian branch. After reporting the matter to the board of directors, they fired Coster and brought in the authorities, who discovered his real identity, which prompted Musica to commit suicide.

Lessons for investors

Receivers appointed to look into McKesson’s books found that the company was still solvent, but the shares still plunged by more than 90% when trading in them, which had been suspended when the fraud was revealed, was resumed. The firm managed to survive and today McKesson Corporation is one of the largest medical-supply companies in the US, with a market capitalisation of more than $22bn. Sometimes, markets overreact to news of fraud.

Recommended

Buying bitcoin could be the best way to play the remote working boom
Bitcoin

Buying bitcoin could be the best way to play the remote working boom

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the move to home working, flexible employment practices and the rise of the “digital nomad”. One of the best …
21 Oct 2020
Great frauds in history: the Independent West Middlesex Fire and Life Assurance Company's early Ponzi scheme
Investment strategy

Great frauds in history: the Independent West Middlesex Fire and Life Assurance Company's early Ponzi scheme

The Independent West Middlesex Fire and Life Assurance Company (IWM) offered annuities and life insurance policies at rates that proved too good to be…
21 Oct 2020
Shaniel Ramjee: tech stocks, China and Japan – where to find the best returns
Investment strategy

Shaniel Ramjee: tech stocks, China and Japan – where to find the best returns

Merryn talks to Shaniel Ramjee of Pictet Asset Management about where to find the best returns in global markets right now – the continued growth of t…
20 Oct 2020
What’s the world’s most hated market? I hate to say it, but you probably live there
UK stockmarkets

What’s the world’s most hated market? I hate to say it, but you probably live there

UK stocks are among the most hated in the world – almost nobody is buying. John Stepek explains why, and wonders if that presents an opportunity for c…
20 Oct 2020

Most Popular

How will we repay our vast debt pile? Do we even need to?
Sponsored

How will we repay our vast debt pile? Do we even need to?

In his recent articles looking at different aspects of the fixed-income investing world, David Stevenson looked at inflation. Today he looks at a clos…
19 Oct 2020
The Bank of England should create a "Bitpound" digital currency and take the world by storm
Bitcoin

The Bank of England should create a "Bitpound" digital currency and take the world by storm

The Bank of England could win the race to create a respectable digital currency if it moves quickly, says Matthew Lynn.
18 Oct 2020
Negative interest rates and the end of free bank accounts
Bank accounts

Negative interest rates and the end of free bank accounts

Negative interest rates are likely to mean the introduction of fees for current accounts and other banking products. But that might make the UK bankin…
19 Oct 2020