An Interview with Nick Leeson
By Shaun Curran
Nick Leeson talks about why the 20th anniversary of the infamous collapse of Barings Bank, a catastrophe he caused through rogue trading, won’t be sending him into despair – even if it does coincide with his birthday…
For the vast majority of people, a birthday is something to be celebrated. For Nick Leeson, it brings back memories of when he was briefly one of the world’s most wanted men. He was on the run for a crime that sent shock waves through the banking industry and beyond. It was February 1995 when Leeson, then a 28-year-old derivatives broker, fled his base in Singapore after running up £862m worth of losses at Barings Bank. The bank subsequently went bust, through unauthorised personal transactions. By the time the original ‘rogue trader’ is arrested at Frankfurt airport days later he has achieved notoriety that endures 20 years later.
Leeson would spend three-and-a-half years in a Singapore jail for his fraud.
It means the 20th anniversary of the ruin of one of the world’s oldest merchant banks is big news, leaving Leeson to recount the events of two decades ago and their implications. The only problem? It’s his birthday today. Many happy returns, indeed.
“It’s so far in the past that I don’t have any baggage attached to it”
“Every year has been an anniversary for me. I can’t distance the two,” Leeson says. “The fact is the 23rd of February is the day that I went on the run. 24th February Barings informed the Bank of England that they were insolvent. The 25th, which is my birthday, in 1995 was a Saturday and that’s the day it first started to hit the newspapers that the bank had collapsed. So it’s one and the same for me.”
That would be a much more significant problem if Leeson felt imprisoned by his actions: “It’s so far in the past that I don’t have any baggage attached to it. So, you know, if I’m being entirely honest [the anniversary] is just another day.”
In order to get to that point, Leeson needed to rebuild his life. He let go of the lifestyle to which he was accustomed. As well as the guilt and embarrassment that this working class son of a plasterer felt. Upon his release from prison – and after treatment for colon cancer – Leeson went to university to study a psychology degree. He wrote books, commissioned a film of his story (Rogue Trader, in which he he was played by Ewan McGregor) and moved to Ireland, away from the media glare. But most important of all, he took the time to understand exactly what drove him to gamble away fortunes of other people’s money.
“You have to be accountable and responsible for your actions”
“Part of the recovery is being accountable and taking full responsibility,” he says. “I don’t think if you don’t get to that stage you’ve got a base with which to move forward. That’s where you’ve got to get to. It doesn’t matter if you’re an alcoholic or a drug addict or a reformed banker. You have to be accountable and responsible for your actions otherwise you’ve got a very depressing future.”
Well remunerated on the after dinner speaker circuit and happily remarried with a 10-year-old son, Leeson’s future is anything but bleak. But while his life is comfortable, he is lacking in the exhilaration that the banking sector provided him on an hourly basis. He admits to “missing the excitement”, but says he would never go back, even if it were permissible.
“That opportunity will never happen, so I won’t head back. But I look back on all the things that happened and it was the thing that made me sick, that ended up with me being in jail. So I don’t miss it that much. I’m happy to play the cards I’m dealt.”