Rather in the same way that Jackie Kennedy was adopted by gays, while herself being straight, so Nick Leeson has become the idol of anarchists and anti-capitalists. After all, he single-handedly wiped out an entire bank. Barings Bank, to be specific, back in 1995. It had been around for a couple of centuries or so, then they let Nick Leeson loose on the derivatives market in Singapore, and suddenly it just didn’t exist anymore. Obliterated with debts. “I didn’t mean to do it,” said Leeson, when I met him in London this week. Marx had a whole theory to do with the “internal contradictions” of capitalism. Leeson put it more simply: “I f***ed up. I killed a bank.”
I have to admit to a sneaking admiration for the man. Not only did he attain a degree of global infamy the rest of us can only dream of, but he was actually played by Ewan McGregor in the movie too. I think that would almost be worth spending four and half years in prison for. The funny thing is Leeson is fairly unimpressed by McGregor, with or without a light sabre in his hand.
“It depicts a period in my life which is the opposite of what I would want to be remembered for.” Leeson himself was armed only with a couple of bananas, having taken an early flight from Galway to come and give a talk to an audience of “operational risk” professionals at a hotel in Grosvenor Square. Maybe in his unintentional anarchistic way he was planning to leave the banana skins lying around the floor of the conference hall with a view to bringing down a few more bankers.
Call me a naive fool if you will, but I take Leeson completely at face-value when he says that he is here to tell his cautionary tale “as honestly and candidly as I can, as factually as possible”. He is a man transformed and re-born. The crux of his original sin was secrecy and concealment – having piled up the debts (we are talking telephone numbers) he hid them away and didn’t admit to anything and no one really questioned what he was up to – until it blew up and it was too late. A culture of “avoidance”. Whereas now it’s all about transparency and truthfulness. Having been divorced by his first wife while he was in prison he is now married to a Catholic, and although not a Catholic himself he has acquired something of the confessional style. He is contrite. He accepts responsibility. He is not in the least (sorry, fans) proud of what he did. “The judge only sentenced me to six years. He didn’t mention the years of remorse.” Just a judge, no jury, simpler than back in England.
He was a Watford boy who done well in banking (Coutts and Morgan Stanley) and quickly ascended the greasy pole. According to his book Rogue Trader, there was a major class struggle between the proletariat (Leeson) and the posh blokes in pinstripes. “That was all bollocks,” says Leeson. The story was cooked up by his ghost writer and his agent with a view to bulking up sales. Leeson feels equally at home on the old council estate or in the city or swanking about with blue bloods amid the lush, steamy parlours of Asia.
Prison in Singapore was reasonably rugged. It’s right up there in the Amnesty International hit parade of harsh regimes, military-style. Back in England, not long after, Jeffrey Archer was playing golf. In Singapore, you had to squat down or bow whenever an officer went by, either that or you got a bloody good beating with bamboo. But the fact is that among his fellow jailbirds he was the Mr Big. He had semi-godlike status. “They were career criminals, mostly Triads, doing time for drug-related offences. I had just stolen two billion dollars.” He had the aura of big money around him, even if there was the small matter of a minus sign at the beginning. He was the uber-felon, a Moriarty among minnows.
Leeson points out that various financial journalists mythified him out of all proportion, on the back of the usual information-deficit. The less you know the more you make up. He doesn’t claim to have been scapegoated, but his crimes were inflated and expanded. There was a lot of “arse-covering” and “bullsh**”. “LEESON’S £50 MILLION BANK ACCOUNT was the headline. If only.”
When he arrived in Singapore, aged 25, he had been a fit, pro-level footballer. He went into a bit of a self-destructive spiral and ended up with cancer in prison. Again his star status helped him out. He got special treatment and is now, 18 years down the road from his release in 1999, in pretty good nick.
Ironically, at the age of 50, Leeson is now a man in demand from the very people he defrauded in the first place. Bankers and “risk” specialists want to learn lessons from the guy who ripped off the system big-style. While Barings Asset Management has risen from the ashes, Leeson himself has morphed into a nomadic after-dinner speaker, giving talks in South Africa one week and Mexico the next. And is making a decent living out of it too. “It’s peanuts by comparison with the 50 million though.”
And he has some words of warning for optimistic DIY online traders. “Be very careful,” says Leeson. “Some people are successful, but very few. There are many unscrupulous brokers out there, promising the world and delivering nothing. Many orders don’t even see the market. The brokers take the other side of the trade and take your money.”
Leeson says he doesn’t know if he has a religion, “but it’s not money.” A lot of people still assume he’s got it all salted away somewhere, possibly in Galway. Or maybe Watford? He was doing a radio show a few years back and someone called in and said, “I’ve just bought your parents’ old house. Should I be digging up the garden?”
Leeson, though a reformed character, still has something of the old fighting have-it-all attitude. He encouraged me to run off – without paying – with a few egg-and-cress sandwiches from the hotel in Grosvenor Square. And a flapjack. Take that Marriott!
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