Dealing with disaster; Profile: Nick Leeson

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The Independent Culture
There are many people who still defend Nick Leeson and claim that he was never a criminal in the true sense of the word. That he never stole anything. And they may have a point. It is true that - through a series of the crudest frauds imaginable, carried out relentlessly on the Singapore futures exchange over a two-year period - he somehow managed to make pounds 869m vanish into thin air, and, as a result, single-handedly brought one of the world's most famous banks crashing down in ruins. But it is also true that not a single penny went into his own pocket.

Indeed, this remains one of the great unsolved mysteries of the entire Barings Bank catastrophe of 1995. To this day, nobody is quite sure exactly what happened to this mountain of loot. Not even Leeson himself. And he has had plenty of time to think about it during the last four and half years when he was locked up each night in his cell in Singapore's Changi Jail.

He knows how he did it. And he knows why he did it. But as to where all that money went, only the great god of capitalism, Mammon himself, will ever know for sure.

We know today that the entire, catastrophic and still largely incomprehensible Leeson scam began through one tiny incident in July 1992. And it happened through an act of undoubted generosity and loyalty on Leeson's part. The working class son of a Watford plasterer, Leeson simply could not bring himself to fire a young Chinese girl from an equally poor background.

Up until that day he had been on a roll. A hard-drinking, roistering, Jack-the-lad with few qualifications, who had failed his mathematics GCE at Watford Grammar School, and made his way into banking through lowly clerks jobs at the Queen's bankers, Coutts, and the US investment bank, Morgan Stanley, he had fought his way up through the ranks in Barings. There, he achieved his goal of moving from the back office to the trading floor, and fast-talked his way into a Far Eastern posting.

There he quickly developed a highly lucrative instinct for trading in the trendy but obscure futures markets then sweeping the Tiger economies of the Pacific Rim. In under a year he was the star performer in the bank's recently established trading department on Simex - the Singapore Money Exchange.

Just turned 26, he was making fifty grand a year in salary and pulling down bonuses of pounds 150,000 a year for his undoubted skill in arbitrage, the esoteric ability to anticipate and exploit the fleeting and temporary price differences that open up for a few seconds between two markets and enable the quick and the smart to make small, but frequent profits that can amount to millions a year.

He and his beautiful new wife, Lisa - also a working class girl - from Kent, whom he had met in the Far East, were living a life they had only dreamed about, with a smart uptown apartment, weekends in luxury Malaysian resorts, and parties almost every night.

Then one morning he found that his office accounts were a little out of kilter on the bad side because one of his inexperienced traders, the Chinese girl whom he had befriended and whose poverty stricken family he had often met, had mixed up buy and sell orders. The amount involved was a trifling pounds 20,000, the kind of glitch that happened daily in the frenzied bear pit of the dealing room. He should simply have fired her, and logged the error.

Instead he decided to protect the girl and fool his bosses for a few days, until he could make could make good the error, and the method the he chose to do this was eventually to become his personal Nemesis. On his desktop computer he created a kind of virtual black hole, gave it the whimsical name of Error Account 88888, and quietly buried the pounds 20,000.

It was the start of descent into financial hell. Leeson realised that day that his London masters had virtually no control over his activities. They were making so much money in the young Simex exchange through dealing in the futures business, that they were happy to leave an almost totally inexperienced young man in control of both the front and back offices, the buying and the documenting of all trades, of the entire Singapore operation.

During the next two years he was to use this same device - the 88888 account - to hide the huge and accelerating losses he began to make on the Japanese Nikkei futures market. Leeson never did make up that shortfall of a few thousand pounds. Like gamblers throughout history, who think all they need to do is double their bets on the red or black at the roulette table, he found himself on a nightmarish rollercoaster that sucked him - and Barings entire capital reserves - deeper and deeper down into the electronic black hole on his desktop computer.

Towards the end he was demanding, and getting, virtually without question, tens of millions of pounds in cash transfers from his London office which he immediately began shovelling down the 88888 hole, losing it in fancy paper work, and then shifting it out into the wide blue yonder to meet margin calls on the huge numbers of contracts he was desperately making on the Nikkei Exchange. His crazy paperwork fooled Barings greedy directors that he was making massive profits while he was steadily bleeding their bank to death.

On the surface he appeared swashbuckling, ice cold, and the complete Master of the Universe, fooling one visiting inspector after another. Underneath he was coming apart, drinking himself into oblivion in Singapore bars by night; guzzling 10lbs of sweets a day, and chewing his fingernails down to the bleeding quick through the enormous stress of it all.

So heavy was his trading that he was actually moving Japan's entire, gigantic Nikkei futures market up and down - and occasionally, but not often, he made huge daily profits on his punts.

But in the end, even mother nature conspired against him in the form of the Kobe earthquake in Japan, which sent markets crashing, and he finally cracked completely, waking up one morning with a monstrous hangover and dazed and bewildered by the enormity of what he had done - and not exactly sure of how many millions he had, in fact, lost.

He literally ran out of his office in panic that day, confessed to Lisa the extent of his fraud, and then the couple took the first plane out, and that happened to be going to Borneo.

Wrapped in each other's arms they watched on hotel TV the total collapse of Barings the next day and learned that he had become the most wanted fugitive in the world. Leeson knew well enough the harshness of Singapore justice, especially when it involved financial chicanery, so they decided the best plan was to run for home and for Nick to spend any jail time in England. But even here the fates were moving against them. They narrowly missed a direct flight to London, their cash was running out, so they decided to go to Brunei and take a flight to Frankfurt, where Nick was arrested on the tarmac.

What happened during the next weeks almost defies belief. In one desperate attempt after another Leeson's lawyers practically begged the British Serious Fraud Office to extradite him to London and prosecute him. They offered a full, written confession of fraud on a large scale to an agency that had suffered one failed prosecution after another. Leeson was prepared to plead guilty to every single charge. But the SFO practically ignored all of this, stating blithely that the matter was one for the Singapore authorities, despite the fact that it was a British bank who had been defrauded, and a British citizen who had committed the crime.

Everybody, from the Bank of England mandarins to Baring's doltish directors, was determined that Leeson must not be allowed to return to England and to tell the full story. Even today the full extent of Baring's incompetence - and the Bank of England's negligence - has not been fully revealed.

It was a cover-up of the most brutal and cynical kind, and even the Daily Telegraph, bible of the establishment, branded it a disgrace, and stated: "If Mr Leeson goes to prison while the former board of Barings continues going to Glyndebourne, this sorry saga will leave the bitterest of tastes..."

Finally, in perhaps the most callous act of all, the thousands of Barings bondholders, the outside investors who held the bank's famous "rock solid" 9.25 per cent Perpetual Bonds - worth around pounds 90 million - were refused the right to extradite Leeson to England to face a private prosecution. These people, many of them elderly couples who had invested their entire life savings in Barings, were, as it later turned out, the only people who actually lost real money. When Barings was sold lock, stock and barrel to the Dutch financial giant, NG, for one pound, they made good the entire loss (except for the Perpetual bond holdings) and actually paid staff bonuses amounting to almost pounds 100m.

And, inevitably, Leeson did go to jail. Germany, with large trade links to Singapore, couldn't wait to get him on a plane going east, and on 1 December 1995, he pleaded guilty to two technical charges of deceiving Barings' auditors and to cheating the Simex exchange, and he was sentenced to six and half years in prison.

Now comes the last chapter. In eight days time, when he is finally released, Leeson faces yet one more public roasting. Those tabloids that failed to win the bidding war for his story will scream that he is going to benefit hugely from his crimes. A major movie, Rogue Trader, based on his own book, and starring Ewan McGregor as Leeson, is expected to make at least pounds 25m in profit, with a goodly slice allegedly going to the lad himself. He has already made an estimated pounds 50,000 from the book itself, and the fee for newspaper serialisation is rumoured to be around pounds 150,000.

When all is said and done - and ethics and morality be damned - the Leeson story still has years to run, purely and simply because it contains all the ingredients that make publishers and movie-makers salivate. It is both a thriller and a romance. It is about greed and high finance. And outside of the City of London nobody minds the spectacle of a big bank, and the fat cats who make millions from it, getting the shaft. And, ironically, because the British financial establishment conspired to throw Leeson to the wolves in Singapore, his crimes were weighed and punished outside our jurisdiction, and legally he may make as much money from them as he can.

So was it all worth it? Is the Watford financial wunderkind finally going to show a profit from his legendary, nightmare con trick on the Singapore futures exchange? Will Nick Leeson become another icon in our curious national treasure of roguery alongside the likes of Ronnie Biggs and Howard Marks? In an age where fame and infamy are just two sides of the same coin, will he become chat show fodder for the next decade.

Or has the price been simply too high? He has spent years in the foulest jail in Asia where he almost died of colon cancer. He is still seriously ill - and in remission from the disease which doctors reckon could kill him within five years.

His once high flying career is over. He is homeless and any profits he may make from his crimes could be stripped before he receives them by thousands of Barings investors who are almost certainly preparing to sue the shirt off his back.

And, perhaps worst of all, the brave and loyal wife, Lisa, who once defended him like a lioness, and whom he undoubtedly adored, has divorced him and is now remarried. It seems that she didn't much care for references to her black underwear and his exploits with Geisha girls on business trips which he recounted with much relish in his best selling book.

And that - it appears - has always been the trouble with Nick Leeson. When he gets carried away and he starts digging a hole for himself, he never knows quite when to stop. The small hole tends to end up as a veritable mine shaft, with Leeson himself at the bottom of it.

Life Story

Born: Feb 25, 1967, Watford

Family: Father, Harry, a plasterer. Mother, Anne, a nurse died of cancer when he was 19. Two sisters, Victoria and Sarah, and one brother, Richard.

Education: Watford Grammar School. Left

at 18.

Banking career: 1985-87, Coutts and Co, clerk selling cheques. 1987-89, Morgan Stanley, settlement clerk in the futures and options division.

Barings career: 1989-1992, Baring Securities, sent to Jakarta in Indonesia:

1992, moved to Singapore as general manager of operation on the Simex exchange.

Downfall: July 1992, sets up 88888 error account in secret; 25 February 1995, flees to Malaysia leaving Barings to collapse with debts of pounds 860m; 22 March held at Frankfurt airport and deported to Singapore; 1 December 1995 sentenced to 61/2 years in jail. Due for release 3 July.

Book: Rogue Trader, now made into a film starring Ewan McGregor and Anna Friel.

Marriage: 1992 to Lisa Sims, a young Barings clerk he met in the Jakarta office. Divorced 1998.

Health: Diagnosed with colon cancer in prison; now in remission after chemotherapy and surgery.

He says: "I have to put my hands up, I'm the guy who caused the pounds 350m loss that led to the pounds 860m loss."

His ex-wife says: "I thought everything was perfect, but from the moment we married, he was leading a double life."

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