Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rogue Trader


By this time, few will be unfamiliar with the notorious Nick Leeson. Former derivatives trader Leeson was the man whose wayward, unauthorised trading practices resulted in the collapse of Barings Bank, London’s longest-established merchant bank. The back cover of Rogue Trader, Nick Leeson’s account of the events that led to the bank’s downfall and his incarceration, promises the reader that:
“The story of Leeson and his bride has it all: a lust for filthy lucre, brazen abuse of power, and boy-meets-girl romance” – SUNDAY TIMES
Sounds scintillating; let’s read on.

Rogue Trader paints Nick Leeson as a thoroughly unsympathetic character. He attempts to justify his initial foray into book-cooking by telling readers that if he had not hidden his first loss (the fairly trifling sum in derivatives trading of £20,000), a co-worker would have been fired. However, the reader comes away with the distinct impression that Leeson was more interested in maintaining his own illusion of competence, rather than looking after his colleague.

Throughout the book, Leeson pours scorn on the make-believe world of financial trading; he is more than happy to revel in macho bullshit himself, however. His descriptions of alcohol-induced high jinx with colleagues were probably meant to show Leeson as an ‘ordinary bloke’, whereas in fact they make him out to be an obnoxious boor (prior to his incarceration, Leeson was briefly held in custody for mooning a group of air hostesses).

Another piece of information that Leeson constantly offers the reader in support of his status as everyman is the fact that his father is a plasterer in Watford. “A person from a working-class background in white-collar employment!”, I hear you gasp. Well, we were shocked as well, but luckily Nick is on hand to repeatedly remind us that yes, his father was a tradesman and yet, yes, he miraculously secured employment in a financial institution; ironic, given that Leeson could be used a shining example by those who would seek to argue that working-class oiks shouldn’t be given access to the world of high finance.

Nick Leeson wrote Rogue Trader as a means to absolve himself of all responsibility for Barings’ collapse. The book goes to great lengths detailing every stage of the fraud where proper oversight would have revealed Leeson’s foray off the reservation. Leeson is fond of blaming the failings of others for his irresponsibility – like blaming the auditors for not finding growing financial discrepancies that he freely admits he went to elaborate lengths to conceal. In the preface, Leeson writes that the book: “…recounts an episode of my life that I’m not very proud of”. These feelings of humility didn’t stop him from making a shed-load of money from the book and subsequent movie option, however.

The book finishes with Leeson imprisoned in Germany, awaiting extradition to Singapore. El Tarangu was rather tickled by one literary coincidence in the final chapters: Leeson, like his literary-convict predecessor Brendan Behan, took solace in the works of Thomas Hardy while imprisoned in a foreign land.

The postscript informs readers that Nick Leeson was duly convicted upon his arrival in Singapore, and was sentenced to six and a half years. What the postscript doesn’t tell readers (though in later editions than El T’s, it might well do) is that Leeson’s wife, Lisa, whom the author harps on about for the duration of the book as his rock and his one constant throughout the whole affair, promptly left him for a different red-braced trader once Leeson was in the clink.

Following on from his release from prison, Nick Leeson became an after-dinner speaker, specialising in telling bankers how not to do things. In what can only be described as a bizarre hiring decision, in 2007 Leeson was appointed CEO of Galway United, an Irish soccer team. This gamble by the club’s board did not pay off: the club is now addled with debt, and has been forced to sell off all of its players, going from a semi-professional club to an amateur one (the club’s misfortunes are not wholly attributable to Leeson, it must be said).

Rogue Trader is summed up quite succinctly in the book’s New York Times review:
“This is a dreary book, written by a young man very taken with himself, but it ought to be read by banking managers and auditors everywhere.”
The banking managers and auditors, however, have seemingly chosen not to follow the Times’ advice.

So, Rogue Trader: quite dull and not terribly well-written, but worth a read if only to gape at Leeson’s breathtaking chutzpah.

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