THE BARINGS CRISIS : Dealer on the run after losses

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The Independent Online
Nick Leeson, believed to be the man responsible for the collapse of Barings, is thought to be on the run from Singapore, having left both his wife in the island state and the company in tatters. Single-handedly, he executed unauthorised trades in the futures market worth billions of dollars, incurring a loss of at least £600m.

However, Barings remains unsure as to the extent of the losses because it is not known whether all the trades made by the rogue dealer have been closed out. In other words more unauthorised trades may come to light which would raise the level of the loss considerably.

The uncertainty over the extent of Barings' problems led the Bank of England to dispatch officials to Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo over the weekend. In Hong Kong the officials were closeted in long meetings with Barings management, giving rise to suggestions that the fraud emanating from Singapore was unwittingly funded from the colony.

Ironically the collapse of the company was triggered in its most successful area of operation - the Far East markets. Barings has enjoyed spectacular growth in this region under the energetic leadership of James Bax in its Singapore regional headquarters.

Piecing together the story of the collapse from well-placed sources in Singapore and Hong Kong shows how extraordinarily easy it was for one person to bring the whole edifice crashing down.

It appears that the problem only came to light last Thursday evening when the Singapore futures market, known as Simex, first realised that large margin calls on the Nikkei stock average contract were not being met.

The Nikkei contract allows financial market players to hedge their investments in the Japanese stock market by buying contracts in the future level of Japan's blue chip stock index.

This is usually done as a supplement to activity in the actual stock market. Stock index contracts are very popular in the often casino-like financial markets of South-east Asia. The mixture of low capital investment combined with high risk and high reward appeals to local investors.

As the market rises, futures contract holders make money, when it falls they incur losses. Positions in the futures market are calculated daily so if a loss is being made the holder of the contract is required to place more money with the exchange to ensure that there is enough cash in hand each day to honour the contract.

Until Thursday the Barings dealer responsible for the crash was managing to meet the margin calls. Presumably, it was at this time that resources dried up to meet the growing demands to deposit ever larger sums of money with the futures exchanges.

The suspicion is now growing that previous margin calls were met by fraudulent manipulation of Barings' banking arm, making the company's banking associate fund the unauthorised activities of its stockbroking side.

Although the rogue dealer was a senior employee he must have been trading massively beyond the limits allowed by the company and could only have done so by disguising the source of the trades.

The Nikkei contract is traded only in Singapore and Osaka, in Japan. The aggressive Simex management plunged into Japanese market futures trading before such a market was created in Japan itself. Significantly, the Nikkei contract is still not offered in the conservative Tokyo market but was taken up in the leaner and more hungry Osaka futures market.

The extent of the unauthorised trading suggests that it must have been conducted in both Singapore and Osaka. Barings was undoubtedly the market- maker in the Nikkei contract.

Barings Securities is also the biggest issuer of warrants in Japanese shares, which is essentially another form of futures trading allowing investors to buy a share at a future date for a fixed price.

This is a high-risk business for both the issuers of the warrants and investors who can build up large positions in individual stocks by paying just a small percentage of the share price to buy a warrant.

There is no direct connection between the warrants market and the market in the Nikkei index. However the prominence of Barings in both markets could do much to influence sentiment in Far East markets, particularly in Japan. "You can never predict the emotional side of things," said one Hong Kong futures trader last night.

The financial regulatory authorities in Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan were closeted in meetings for most of yesterday In theory, both the Singapore and Osaka futures markets should have little to worry about in terms of outstanding liabilities because the system of daily settlement means that the contracts were only exposed to default for a couple of days; hitherto all liabilities had been met.

It is reliably understood that Barings in Singapore will be making a police report today, naming the rogue trader as the source of a massive fraud.