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Financial Disasters Of Our Time: The Collapse Of Barings

IT IS difficult for anyone to hear the story of Barings without feeling a wicked twinge of satisfaction at the manner in which Britain's oldest merchant bank was brought to its knees and, just for once, the upper classes got their come-uppance.

Real life is never quite so simple, of course. But the strange "nod-and- a-wink" treatment the chief protagonist in Barings' demise has always received from the UK press suggests less of a criminal, which he is, and more of a lovable rogue.

On one side is a 28-year-old "lad" from a Watford council estate, Nick Leeson; on the other a bunch of toffs, scions of Eton, Winchester and Oxford.

Leeson joined Barings in March 1992 as a settlement officer - effectively a clerk. By spring 1994 he was dealing in futures and options, sophisticated telephone number-sized bets on the likely direction of financial markets. The trader appeared to have the knack, earning a bonus of pounds 130,000 on his salary of pounds 50,000. According to his superiors' calculations, Leeson had earned them pounds 10m. In fact, by his own calculations, he was already nursing a loss of pounds 23m in a secret account, known as 88888.

As Leeson later wrote: "I was probably the only person in the world to be able to operate on both sides of the balance sheet. It became an addiction."

His addictive behaviour was allowed to continue unchecked by Leeson's superiors, who by late 1994 were regarding him as a star dealer. By then the losses stashed away in account 88888 stood at pounds 208m.

Despite this, Leeson requested and obtained increasing funding to continue his trading activities, as he attempted to extricate himself from the financial mess by more and more frenetic double-or-quit deals. Alarmed, his bosses carried out a spot audit in February 1995 and discovered they were nursing losses to the tune of more than pounds 800m, almost the entire assets of the bank.

Barings crashed and was bought for just pounds 1, by the Dutch insurer ING. Dozens of Barings executives who were implicated in the failure to control Leeson resigned or were sacked.

Leeson was given a six-year jail sentence in Singapore. Recently, it was revealed he was suffering from cancer of the bowel. Despite his criminal activities, there will be many in the UK wishing him a speedy recovery, not least because it can truly be said of him: he is the one who broke the bank.