Wirecard's founder Markus Braun was arrested on suspicion of false accounting and market manipulation two days after the company he built into Europe's leading fintech group admitted that €1.9bn (NZ$3.3 billion) of cash reported on its balance sheet probably does "not exist".
Prosecutors said Mr Braun, who led Wirecard for nearly two decades, was suspected of artificially inflating the payment group's balance sheet and revenues to make it more attractive to investors and clients.
• Wirecard fights for survival as it admits scale of fraud
• Premium - The fund managers who kept faith with Wirecard
• Wirecard NZ carries on amid investigations in Singapore over false accounting claims
• Premium - Wirecard says $3.3 billion of cash is missing after EY probe
Shares in Wirecard have fallen more than 80 per cent since last week, when the company revealed the cash was missing and later said it had mischaracterised its biggest business and that previous financial statements may be inaccurate.
An Austrian citizen, the 50-year-old Mr Braun reported himself to Munich prosecutors on Monday evening, travelling to the German city from his home in Vienna after a judge issued an arrest warrant.
A Munich judge on Tuesday afternoon released Mr Braun from custody on €5m bail. The former CEO will have to report to police on a weekly basis. A lawyer for Mr Braun declined to comment.
Prosecutors said they were continuing to investigate the rest of the former management board. This includes chief operating officer Jan Marsalek, who was fired on Monday. A report in the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper on Tuesday evening quoted friends of Mr Marsalek saying he was in Manila.
A former KPMG consultant, Mr Braun turned Wirecard into one of Europe's hottest investments. When it replaced Commerzbank in the Dax 30 index in 2018, he was a paper billionaire and regarded by many within Germany as a tech visionary.
Wearing the black turtleneck uniform favoured by Steve Jobs at Apple, he promised Wirecard would be at the forefront of a world where notes and coins were obsolete.
Until he resigned last week, Mr Braun was the longest-serving chief executive of a Dax company, and one of the richest, thanks to a 7 per cent stake in the group he ran from 2002. At its peak in the summer of 2018, Wirecard had a market value of more than €24bn.
Much of what Mr Braun said is now in question. In 2017, for example, he told investors that Wirecard was using the latest artificial intelligence technology to analyse data. But according to documents seen by the FT, staff were instead cobbling together spreadsheets of customer information.
By the end of last week, Mr Braun had sold a large chunk of his shares in Wirecard. According to Financial Times calculations based on regulatory filings, his stake in the company fell from 7.1 per cent to 2.6 per cent.
Mr Braun in late 2017 had borrowed €150m from Deutsche Bank, pledging his shares as collateral for a margin loan. According to people familiar with the matter, he later moved the loan to a different lender. The total proceeds of the share sales on Thursday and Friday added up to €155.2m.
Shortly before his resignation last Friday, Mr Braun told investors that Wirecard might have become the victim of "fraud of considerable proportions".
With the crisis escalating, regulators have clamped down on the group. Germany's financial watchdog BaFin has sought to ringfence Wirecard Bank, the lender that the payments group has owned for more than a decade.
It has installed a special representative in the bank's headquarters to monitor the bank management's decisions and imposed a partial payments ban to prevent the lender, which had €1.9bn of assets at the end of last year, from transferring certain assets to Wirecard, according to people familiar with the matter. Wirecard declined to comment.
Felix Hufeld, BaFin president, told attendees of a conference on Monday that "a whole range of private and public entities including my own have not been effective enough" at preventing the "complete disaster" at Wirecard.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore ordered Wirecard to keep customer funds linked to its local business in the city state's banks.Wirecard's Asia headquarters last year were raided by Singapore police after the Financial Times reported whistleblower allegations that staff in the city state had forged documents to deceive regulators and auditors. Police investigations there are ongoing.
- Financial Times