Nick and Joseph were just too good

The Leeson story has an American parallel. And at heart, both are about ambition unrestrained
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The Independent Online
All last week I was transfixed by the battle of the competing Barings stories: the story Peter Baring told the Financial Times, that Eddie George told James Naughtie, that Kenneth Clarke told the Commons, and then the rather different story that seeped from the City, the story that Nick and Lisa Leeson brought back with them from Borneo, the Story for the Defence, as developed by Max Clifford. "Queen's bank ruined by rotten apple" versus "Innocent trader ditched by corrupt aristo bosses".

When newspapers embark on a major story, editors ask themselves: what kind of story is this? Meaning, what is the archetype? They don't passively wait for the full picture to emerge. They form their own preliminary theory about a story, then they seek to flesh it out. That is why, in next to no time, we heard that Mr Leeson's parents lived on a shabby council estate in Watford. Probably, knowing Watford, the estate isn't that shabby at all. But shabbiness fitted the archetype of the rags-to-riches-to-ruin story. That's how the yacht called Lisa, with its echo of Maxwell's Lady Ghislaine, came in - the hypothetical yacht which sank in mid-week, taking the mythical Porsche with it. That's where the jungles and remote stretches of tropical coast came from, settings out of Conrad, Maugham and successive popular imitators.

At the beginning of the week, one somehow received the impression that Mr Leeson was an obscure figure in a large organisation, the guy against whose secret activities no bank anywhere could have defended itself. By the end of the week it had been turned on its head. Mr Leeson was physically and financially conspicuous, "The King", watched, admired, criticised, scrutinised. This was not some shy clerk plotting mayhem in a broom cupboard. This was a man who lived in and for the glare.

Mr Leeson is a reader of thrillers, and appears to be acting out the racy bits of one today. He lets it be known that, if sent back to Singapore, he fears not the rough denizens of Changi jail, but those for whom his continued existence is going to prove inconvenient. Mr Leeson "knows too much". He thinks that in Singapore "he will be a marked man. He genuinely believes he will be killed. During his time in Singapore he has seen too many people `disappear'." This from an anonymous "friend" in the Sunday Mirror. It sounds a bit like Max Clifford, doesn't it? And it sounds somewhat unlike Singapore. How many members of the Singapore Stock Exchange, apart from Mr Leeson, go missing every year? How many traders get weighted down with stones and dropped on moonlit nights with a quiet splosh into the Straits? "Too many disappear." How many is too many, and what are their names?

The achievement of bringing down Barings is one of such mythic proportions that it is natural to want to know what kind of personality we are dealing with. Comparison has been made between the Barings fiasco and what happened last year in the Wall Street firm of Kidder, Peabody. There, a single trader ran up debts of $350m and is accused of civil fraud. The characters of the two traders, and their relation to the firm, are quite different, which makes their similarities intriguing.

Joseph Jett was a black high-flier. His father had been successful enough to found a small insurance firm, and brought up his son in the expectation that he would improve on what he himself had achieved. The son studied engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed after a gap by a spell at the Harvard Business School. He seems to have had all the intellectual equipment, but no talent, for his particular calling in business, which led him to trade in government bonds. What seems to have fired him, though, was a complex of resentments.

He had inherited from his father a dislike of the Great Society and the welfare state. He hated affirmative action, because it undermined the idea that he had achieved what he had by his own merits. He was (no doubt still is) rather more than a neo-conservative. A friend, quoted in New York magazine, says that "he knew his German absolutism and sympathised with it. He was chilling and fascinating - a combination of ability and steeliness."

Whereas Mr Leeson appears to have been popular with his colleagues, Mr Jett was openly contemptuous of his. As soon as he had underlings he harangued them humiliatingly over the PA system. The more successful he became, the more his being black at Kidder tormented him. He always wore suits, even on "casual day", in order to avoid being mistaken for a messenger. He refused to socialise on any terms. When he was made employee of the year, Mr Jett addressed his seniors with such a defence of greed that he chilled even their blood, and made them think of not giving him the award, even though they had assembled for that very purpose.

What really strikes me, both about Mr Jett and about Mr Leeson, is that the people who came to suspect them did so on the grounds that they were too successful. They had raised the profits in their respective sections far too dramatically, when others knew that, in that kind of trade, those kind of profits were not to be had. Windfalls, yes. Good months, yes. But month after month, no.

The psychology of Mr Jett, which says "I must rise and others must be kicked in the face," is far more likely to abort its mission of success- at-all-costs, because its whole requirement is to make enemies. Mr Leeson appears by contrast to have been very clubbable. One notices, from the stories, a contempt for those not in the club, but one could hardly call Nick Leeson an outsider - certainly not in his Singapore milieu.

But a great key to the psychology of an individual is not what they believe to be happening but the gross, overt effects of their actions, both for themselves and for those around them. Mr Leeson may have thought he admired or valued Barings, but if, as it turned out, he destroyed it, one has the right to suspect that he had, deep down, an utter contempt for it; that his strategies were fuelled by the thrill of personal success, and that the failure of Barings would not, somehow , be real to him.

Mr Jett was asked: "Do you realise that you've caused the firm to take a $350m loss? Don't you have any explanation?" Allegedly he replied: "I don't know anything about losses. I think I'm profitable."

Which, amazingly, was what the people at Barings said last week, explaining why, despite everything, they still felt entitled to their bonuses.

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