Billion Dollar Whale Summary

1-Sentence-Summary: Billion Dollar Whale tells the incredible story of Jho Low, a Malaysian man who committed one of the biggest heists of the century by defrauding a national investment fund.

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Billion Dollar Whale Summary

Wharton Business School is one of America’s highest-ranked business schools, and prospective students can expect an exceptional education for a hefty price tag of $50,000 a year. But Jho Low, a shy student from Malaysia, wasn’t at Wharton to study. Instead, Low wanted access to the wealthiest families in the world.

He was desperate to fit in and be like the elite. And he got exactly that. Through his business school connection and the help of corrupt institutions, he siphoned billions from an investment fund. Then, he used the stolen funds to live lavishly.

In Billion Dollar Whale: The Man Who Fooled Hollywood, Wall Street, and the World by Tom Wright and Bradley Hope, we get the riveting true story of how a young man with no business experience pulled off one of the biggest heists of all time. 

Here’s the book summarized in just 3 lessons:

  1. Jho Low mastered the art of deception as a boy in school who wanted desperately to keep up with the wealthy people around him. 
  2. Low gained the power of a massive investment fund for Malaysia with the power of his connections.
  3. Although billions were lost before Low was caught, eventually, he was brought to justice.

Ready to hear a crazy story? Let’s dive right in!

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Lesson 1: Jho Low learned how to deceive people at a young age because he wanted to keep up with his wealthy peers.

Jho Low was a pudgy and shy 17-year-old when he started his first year at the prestigious Harrow School in England. With tuition of around $16,000 a term, it was a place that educated children of the elite. Two of Low’s classmates included the heirs to the thrones of Brunei and Kuwait. 

Low wasn’t actually poor himself, as his family was worth around $15 million. But in comparison to his classmates, he was a small fry, and this bothered him. So to keep up appearances, he began to lie. 

When some friends visited his home in Malaysia, he rented a local billionaire’s home and yacht. He even went as far as to replace the photographs in the home with his own family’s. It worked, and soon people at school knew him as the “prince of Malaysia.” 

One of his classmates, Riza Aziz, was the stepson of Malaysia’s defense minister, Najib Razak. He was known for being corrupt. Aziz told him about his stepdad and how he would give licenses for kickbacks. 

Low soon felt that if those in power were taking what they wanted, he wanted his cut too. He knew from experience that his lying could open doors for him. All he needed was the right opportunity. So he left for the United States to find one.

Lesson 2: Low used connections to eventually make his way into power over a large investment fund for Malaysia.

At Wharton, Low spent most of his time forging connections with those he thought would help him rise to power. One of these was Hamad al-Wazzan, the son of a Kuwaiti construction tycoon. After forging a friendship, he joined Wazzan on a trip around the Gulf States, where he met many important people

One of these was Khaldoon Khalifa al-Mubarak, the wealthy director of Mubadala, a state-owned investment company. So when the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund Khazanah Nasional searched for partners to invest in an economic zone designed to foster investment, Low reached out to Mubarak. A few days later, he presented an offer to Khazanah for a $500 million investment from Mubadala. 

Low decided not to take credit for the deal. Instead, he let Najib Razak, a Malaysian politician he knew, do so. It was a master move because Najib was desperate to advance his political career and was looking for credentials, and Low made a mighty friend in his home country. 

Soon, Najib Razak became Prime Minister of Malaysia, and Low was sitting pretty. However, Najib was desperate to restore his party’s waning popularity, and he went to Low for help. Low asked for control of his own investment fund.

So Najib announced a new sovereign wealth fund, which would be called the 1Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB. It had $1.4 billion of bonds that Low would oversee. Its purpose was to raise money in the Gulf and channel it into projects that would promote economic development in Malaysia. The heist was beginning.

Lesson 3: Once he had power over the fund, he defrauded billions until he was caught.

Under Low and Najib, the 1MDB raised billions in bonds for use in investment projects between 2009 and 2013. But soon, millions were missing.

Meanwhile, Low was living a life of extraordinary luxury. He soon became known in the United States as an extravagant partier. He befriended Hollywood celebrities and threw over-the-top, star-studded parties in Las Vegas, for which he spent $85 million on booze, Playboy Playmates, and private jet trips in just a year. 

The more he spent, the more celebrities were drawn to him. He spent time with Leonardo DiCaprio, Miranda Kerr, Jaimie Foxx, and more. He burned millions giving gifts to his celebrity friends, buying yachts and real estate, and funding the movie The Wolf of Wall Street.

So how was he able to pull this stunt for so long? It certainly was not a carefully constructed scheme. He took millions of dollars out of one account and siphoned them into his own accounts. Thanks to corrupt people around him, including Najib, people looked the other way. 

One of his strategies was using accounts under company names resembling real companies to help keep investigators off the scent. He also laundered money into trust accounts in the US, where laws make suspicious transactions hard to find. 

It seemed to be working out great for him until a disgruntled insider came along. Justo Xavier, the former director of the shell company PetroSaudi that funded 1MDB, still owed $2 million. He warned his ex-employers that he’d bring the corruption to light if they didn’t pay up. They ignored him. 

Not only this, but in Malaysia, people were suspecting Najib was profiting from the fund personally. Finally, in 2014, Justo decided he’d had enough, and he released evidence of the scandal to the newspapers. Low’s career as an international fraudster was finally ending.  All in all, he is accused of stealing a whopping $4.5 billion.

Billion Dollar Whale Review

I gotta be honest, I don’t completely understand all the financial lingo here, but Billion Dollar Whale is crazy! It’s a riveting story that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Now I’m wondering when the movie version is going to happen!

Who would I recommend the Billion Dollar Whale summary to?

The 23-year-old who loves to read interesting stories about big money heists, the 47-year-old that thinks they might like to try detective work, and anyone that’s looking for a good read.

Last Updated on June 14, 2023

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Luke Rowley

With over 450 summaries that he contributed to Four Minute Books, first as a part-time writer, then as our full-time Managing Editor until late 2021, Luke is our second-most prolific writer. He's also a professional, licensed engineer, working in the solar industry. Next to his day job, he also runs Goal Engineering, a website dedicated to achieving your goals with a unique, 4-4-4 system. Luke is also a husband, father, 75 Hard finisher, and lover of the outdoors. He lives in Utah with his wife and 3 kids.