Paul Erdman, 74; banker and economist known for writing financial thrillers

Times Staff Writer

Paul Erdman, a noted economist and former Swiss banker who tapped his knowledge of international finance and monetary trends to write best-selling financial thrillers, including “The Billion Dollar Sure Thing” and “The Crash of ’79,” has died. He was 74.

Erdman died of cancer Monday at his ranch in Healdsburg in Sonoma County, said his son-in-law Hernan Narea.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), in a statement to The Times this week, called Erdman “one of the leading financial minds of the 20th century” and “a dear friend whose intellect was dazzling.”

Dubbed “the king of the financial thriller” and the “Adam Smith of the crime novel,” Erdman launched his career as a novelist three decades ago in an unlikely venue: a 17th century Swiss jail.


He was chief executive of United California Bank of Basel, Switzerland, in 1970 when he presided over what has been called “one of the most spectacular collapses in the history of Swiss banking.”

Erdman and seven other bank employees, according to a 1972 story in The Times, were charged with fraud, forgery and other crimes in connection with commodity speculation resulting in a $53.4-million loss.

Erdman began writing his first novel, “The Billion Dollar Sure Thing,” during the months he spent behind bars after his arrest.

Published in 1973, the international tale of various attempts to manipulate the value of the dollar and the price of gold reportedly sold more than 2 million copies and earned Erdman an Edgar Award for best first novel from the Mystery Writers of America.

“I had just come off the excitement of international banking,” Erdman later told Time magazine, “and I was full of theories. Primarily, I was convinced that the world was facing the first cataclysmic financial events since World War II: a massive increase in the price of gold and the devaluation of the dollar.”

Erdman originally had intended to write a book on economics.

“But since I was in jail at the time, I had no research facilities, so I decided to try it in novel form,” he told the New York Times Book Review in 1981.

Erdman’s 1974 novel “The Silver Bears” became a 1978 movie starring Michael Caine and Cybill Shepherd.

“The Great Game,” his 10th novel, is expected to be published this year, his family said.

“I probably have a better background in international economics than most economists in this country,” Erdman told San Francisco Business Magazine in 1990. “I think my credentials are just fine. It’s just that it’s a rather boring profession. Who in hell wants to spend their life being an economist?”

Born May 19, 1932, in Stratford, Canada, to American parents (his father was a Lutheran minister), Erdman received a bachelor of divinity degree from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis in 1954 and another bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

After stints as an assistant editor of the editorial page at the Washington Post and working in a brokerage house in Washington, he earned a doctorate in economics, European history and theology from the University of Basel in 1958.

During the late 1950s and early ‘60s, Erdman served as an international economist with the European Coal and Steel Community (the forerunner of the European Common Market) and the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, Calif.

With funding from San Diego financier Charles Salik, Erdman launched the Salik Bank in Basel in the mid-1960s, reportedly becoming the first American to establish a private bank in Switzerland. By late 1968, the Salik Bank reportedly had assets of nearly $50 million. It was bought by United California Bank in 1969.

Then came the bank’s closing in 1970.

The Swiss prosecutor, according to the 1972 Times story, said the bank’s losses were incurred through large-scale unauthorized speculation by key bank officers on silver, cocoa and other commodities and by foreign exchange dealing in the late 1960s. The losses, the prosecutor said, had been covered up by falsifying the bank’s books.

Erdman, who blamed the bank’s commodities traders for the problems and disclaimed personal responsibility, left Switzerland after posting bail.

Tried in absentia, according to a 1987 Times story, he was convicted of fraud, sentenced to nine years in prison and ordered to pay a $25,000 fine. He also was banished from Switzerland for 15 years and would have faced incarceration had he ever returned. Under U.S.-Swiss treaties, however, he could not be extradited.

Erdman’s time in jail became a colorful biographical footnote as he pursued his career as a novelist and continued to be sought after for his views on international finance as a speaker and writer.

In addition to his novels, Erdman wrote several nonfiction books, including “Tug of War: Today’s Global Currency Crisis.” And from 1998 to 2005 he wrote a column on international finance and affairs for MarketWatch, an online financial news service.

“Paul was one of these characters who could really capture the intersection of international relations and the financial markets,” MarketWatch managing editor Alexander Davis told The Times this week. “He wrote with a kind of idiosyncratic wit and flair; he was a pretty rare talent.”

Erdman is survived by his wife, Helly; his daughters, Jennifer Erdman and Constance Erdman Narea; and two granddaughters.