Rogue trader Nick Leeson knows all about crime and punishment. He lost £862-million betting on the markets in the 1990s. In his case, he says the punishment - four years, four months in Singapore’s maximum security jail - fitted the crime.
Now he roams the world from his new home in County Galway, Ireland, talking about his infamous role in the collapse of Barings Bank. He has been in Johannesburg for a few days as a guest of Trifecta Capital Services, speaking about risk management, compliance and corporate responsibility.
"It wasn’t intentional," he says of his unauthorised, fraudulent and speculative trading that caused the collapse of the UK’s oldest investment bank. "People sometimes think that what I did was meticulous and planned out. It wasn’t - I made mistakes," he says.
He hid his accumulating trading losses in Asian futures and options markets. He knew he had to refer these deficits residing in the bank’s main error account for the region - number 88888, an extremely lucky series of numbers in Chinese - to London, but did not.
"I chose not to do that. During the course of the day the error probably got worse, the loss bigger," he says. "I felt I was failing, so did not want to take those steps."
In 1992, he was appointed GM of a new Barings operation in futures markets on the Singapore International Monetary Exchange. He was not a "wide boy" from London’s booming financial district of the time, although traders from his working-class English background were inevitably dubbed "barrow boys" - a term he despises.
Instead, he says he was "quite introverted" and went home to nearby Watford on weekends to be with his "mates" who worked on building sites.
"We were always characterised as barrow boys - we didn’t have the blue blood," he says. This led him to loathe a month he spent around this time with Barings in Hong Kong, where many traders had such airs and graces.
But he says Singapore was different - and was quite new to futures trading in the early 1990s.
Barings was in flux at the time and was looking for a buyer for Barings Securities. Jobs were being lost, people moved around.
The bank had "great research" and "transacted business immediately", Leeson says. "It’s what excited me about Barings. I had enjoyed a good degree of success up to that point."
But it had no training courses or real support, he says, "and a single compliance officer in London, I think". Before Singapore, Leeson had been with the bank in Indonesia. However, he says it had a history of problems in the form of unsettled trades there and in New York and South Korea.
In his brash mid-20s in Singapore, he was soon charged by police for "mooning" (displaying his bare buttocks), which he says he also did back in Watford. Barings got him off a charge of "outraging female modesty", which could carry a one-year jail term.
"Barings were very keen to have me back and making money - in their opinion. Obviously I was losing money (by then)" he says. He lost huge sums, sometimes making some back, but always hiding it, for about two-and-a-half years.
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