Nick Leeson was a working at Morgan Stanley, one of the most successful American banks, where he was on a training course in the Settlements Division for Futures and Options. He was twenty years old, earning £20,000, and he bought his first flat in Watford.
He was the model employee at work because nobody knew where he came from and what he did at weekends. The world of futures and options was expanding rapidly, and few people really understood how they worked. Morgan Stanley were one of the players in the market, and they invested a good deal of time in training the back office staff who sorted all the deals out, as well as recruiting the best dealers to go on the trading floor at LIFFE, the London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange.
Nick Leeson first worked in the City as a school-leaver aged eighteen, when he joined Coutts & Company, bankers to Queen, in 1985. He worked there for two years, settling all the cheques, but never came across one signed by Charles Windsor. In fact, Coutts had all the problems of all High Street bank because his wives running up vast overdrafts without telling Nick Leeson. Nick’s work became increasingly boring as he simply pushed piles of cheques around the large office and bundled them up to be filed in some vast warehouse.
In June 1987, a friend of Nick Leeson told him about the job at Morgan Stanley, so he went along for the interview and was offered it immediately. He was told that he could either work in Foreign Exchange for settling all the bank’s foreign exchange dealings, or in the Futures and Options Division for settling rather more complicated deals. He opted for Futures and Options, thereby sealing his own future.
As he pushed through all the settlements for the futures and options deals, he began to see the real money was being made by the dealers. He was stuck in the back office, sorting out paperwork, while the dealers who were out there on the trading floor were earning vast salaries and bonuses. His mother had always pushed him higher, and he began to aspire to becoming a trader.
At that time the golden boy of trading floor was James Henderson, who had been hired by Morgan Stanley for a big salary and was doing a lot of business. Nick Leeson managed to become his runner to do all the stuff which is too menial to him. Although the salary was only paid around £15,000, it was the first step on the ladder, and Nick did able to see how the dealers really worked. But his boss refused him to go and the job went to someone else. Nick resigned from Morgan Stanley on 16 June 1989 and started his first day’s work at Baring on 10 July 1989.
Baring Bank was founded in the City of London by Sir Francis Baring in 1763. It was the world’s first merchant bank which provides finance and advice for its clients, but will also trade on its own account as a merchant which is taking risks by buying and selling stock, land or coffee like any other trader. Barings soon became internationally because their ideas for financing trade is flexible and innovative. Since it was not a High Street bank, where only thousands of people deposited their funds, Barings had just a small capital base, so it had to live and thrive on its wits.
When Nick Leeson arrived in 1989, Barings still operated in exactly the same way. Staffs were now issued with security passes, and there were some green flickering Reuters screens giving instant share prices on every stock market across the world, but Barings’ principles seemed to have stayed pretty much the same.
Nick was told that in 1803 Barings had financed the purchase from France by the fledgling United States of America of the southern State of Louisiana, among others. The cash-flow calculations were all based on cotton prices and the impact of the abolition of bondage. Barings was first choice as financial adviser and banker for governments, large companies and wealthy clients because of its great Jewish rival, Rothschilds. In 1886, Barings sustained Guinness on the London Stock Exchange. This is an issue which proved so popular that cause mounted police had to summoned to stop the crowds from intruding Barings with their application forms.
By the turn of the century Barings had become banker to the royal family, and in their time members of the Barings family have received five separate hereditary peerages as rewards for their services to banking.
When Nick Leeson joined Barings the senior peer of the family was Lord Ashburton, who was just about to retire as Chairman. He was a great friend of Margaret Thatcher, and left Barings to become Chairman of BP, Britain’s largest company and one of the twenty largest companies in the world. The other Barings peers who have married across the length and breadth of Debrett’s include Lord Northbrook, whose ancestor, the first Earl of northbrook, was Governor of India and First Lord of the Admiralty under Gladstone; Lord Revelstoke; Lord Cromer, whose grandfather was Consul of Egypt and whose father was Governor of the Bank of England and British ambassador to Washington during the Nixon years; and finally Lord Howick, whose father was the last colonial Governor of Kenya and who establish the great Baring Charitable Foundation, which ultimately controlled Barings and gave vast sums of money to charity.
Nick started off in the same department he did been in at Morgan Stanley, working in the Settlements Division for Futures and Options. He only been there for nine months before he realized his prospects in London was limited. He was tucked away in the division, reporting to a boss who was very senior, and he knew that he would have to wait for ten years to inherit his job. He rapidly became completely bored and asked for transfer.
One of the Barings’ sensational successes in the 1980s was the operation set up by Christopher Heath to trade stocks and shares in Japan. Barings had engraved out a wonderful position there just as the Japanese Stock Market started to boom. Throughout the 1980s Heath was celebrated as the highest-paid banker in Britain, with a salary about £3 million. Nobody knew exactly how much he was earning, but everybody knew that is was a huge amount because it all came from the dealing he was doing in the Far East. Heath started his amazing business at Japan, but there was also going on in Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia and all other Asian countries.
So Nick Leeson jumped at the chance to go and work in Indonesia, but when he arrived at Jakarta he realized that the realities of Barings’ overseas operations were very different from their appearance. In Barings’ glossy literature all about their innovative approach to doing business in the Far East and how they had unique experience and a valuable customer base, but in reality it was actually in a complete mess. The bank didn’t even have an office at Jakarta, workers were working out of a room in the Hotel Borubudur. Barings were sitting on £100 million worth of share certificates, which they couldn’t pass on to the customers and claims the money because the certificates were in chaos. All of the workers at Barings do not knew how to sort them out. They were stacked up any which way in a basement strong room in the vaults of the Standard Charted and Hong Kong and Shanghai banks.
Christopher Heath may have been earning his £3 million, and Barings may have won all the accolades for breaking into the Asian market, but beneath this impressive veneer the reality of Barings was shoddy and inefficient because the bank was sitting on a £100 million hole in their balance sheet. This would have been a disaster for Barings balance sheet. It would have thrown all their ratios awry and severely limited their ability to lend money. This had effectively limiting their ability to act as bankers.
Nick Leeson worked in that airless, windowless dungeon for ten months, sorting out the chaos of Barings’ unclaimed share certificates. The problem Barings had was that they did sold shares to customers, bought in equal number to balance the trade, but then accepted share certificates which did not match. Since the stock market fallen in 1989, the people who had bought the shares were not particularly keen to pay for them. Their main excuse was that the share certificates were either in the wrong denomination, unacceptably tatty or not properly documented.
Nick Leeson worked out which trades each bank had done with Barings, found the right certificates, worked out what documentation was needed to go with them, and then walked round to the banks and demanded payment. The Indonesian certificates are all bearer bonds that are equivalent of a blank cheque so they are of value to whoever happens to have them in their hands.
He had been in Jakarta for about three months when Barings sent some people to help him out. A beautiful blonde girl, Lisa Sims, was from Kent and this was her first posting overseas.
By Christmas 1990, they had reduced Barings’ exposure in Jakarta to £10 million and when the auditors agreed that Barings need not make any provision in its balance sheet for this liability. The £100 million hole which had been stuck in the bank vaults could now be wiped off the computer.
Nick Leeson returned to London in March 1991 and from then on was seen as the settlements expert in futures and options. Throughout 1991, he travelled on Barings expense account looking at their fledgling operations in Europe and the Far East. He accompanied the Development Officer, Tony Dickel, around the world as Barings looked to exploit new opportunities. They visited Frankfurt, where they suggested that Barings should expand their office to plug into the growing European business then Hong Kong and Manila, and late in the year they went to have a look at Singapore operation.
Barings had acquired a seat on the Singapore International Monetary Exchange – SIMEX – but had not activated it. The Barings subsidiary had an office staff around seventy and they did all the usual things like buying and selling Singaporean shares, researching the local markets and offering fund management and banking facilities but they had no ability to deal in futures. Barings lost the opportunity to charge commission because any requests which came to them to buy or sell futures or options had to be brokered through another trader. Tony Dickel and Nick Leeson advised Barings that they should activate the trading seat and staff up in order to take advantage of the growing business there. Tony Dickel and Nick Leeson discussed the Singapore operation throughout January and February 1992. He spoke to James Bax, Regional Manager of Barings South Asia, who had heard of Nick Leeson’s success in Jakarta. They wanted him to set the operation up and run it. Nick Leeson was the General Manager who recruits traders and back office staff and make money. Lisa and Nick Leeson were thrilled. The news of their transfer to Singapore came through in March, ten days before their wedding.
Nick Leeson had been working is various back offices for almost six years, pushing paper money around, sorting out other people’s problems. In Singapore, he could work with instant money. George Seow was the first trader he recruited. They were a new team and were watching the September futures contracts on the Nikkei index, which is calculated from the fluctuating value of an underlying "basket" of shares.
Futures contracts enables people to buy or sell this basket of shares at a given price in the future, typically anchored around four dates which is the ends of March, June, September and December. Given the uncertainty of future prices, the value can move around wildly as people take different view about how the Nikkei share index itself might trade. The futures contracts and the index move in broadly similar lines, but the time gap and the leverage in the futures market means that the futures are far more volatile than the share itself.
Nick Leeson and Fernando had just set up shop in SIMEX and Nick Leeson had no authority to trade himself. He was just there to fill Fernando’s orders from Tokyo. He would take his orders down the phone, signal them to George, and tell Fernando whether they had completed them. The deals were very simple. They are doing something called "arbitraging". Fernando would watch the futures contracts in Osaka, centre for Nikkei futures trading, and Nick Leeson would tell him every two seconds what was going on in Singapore. Sometimes a local trader would be buying in one market without the ability to trade in the other, and he might have to fill an order which pushed up the whole market price in SIMEX. For a few seconds a difference would open up between the Osaka and Singapore prices.
Traders’ position is called "long" if they have bought in the hope that prices will rise, enabling traders to sell at a profit later on. Similarly, being "short" usually means that traders have sold in the expectation of a price fall, which will enable to buy back at a cheaper price. Many traders have set limits on the profit or loss they can take during a day. If the market moves a certain distance from their entry price then they might reach this limit and be forced to sell to cut their losses. This is called a "stop loss". By "low-ticking" someone, Nick Leeson was going to give a new price to the market and push it in a new direction. He was trying to flush out the market to see if there was a stop-loss seller, since as soon as his offer was made in the pit and put up on the screen, the market would see it and it might trigger just such a sale.
SIMEX is a much smaller market than Osaka, so sometimes a local dealer who only has authority to trade SIMEX will push the Nikkei index around the SIMEX pit, and the same contracts might have different prices in SIMEX to those quoted on the Osaka exchange in Japan. SIMEX is also a proper market, in the sense that everything is only involves real buyers and real sellers. In Osaka, bids and offers are put on screens and the market moves in a different way. Traders can put all sorts of bids and offers on the screen which change the way dealers think the market might move. The dealers in SIMEX could see the latest prices in Osaka but they could not see the size of the orders. But Nick Leeson could put up prices in Osaka, which made it look as if the market was moving in one direction, and then do the opposite in SIMEX, where there was a real market operating in real time with real buyers and sellers.
Arbitraging futures and options is a low risk business. The only real risk is in the split seconds it takes for Fernando to tell Nick Leeson what he wants to do and for Nick to tell George and for George to do it. This is a real risk, however, since somebody else might be doing exactly the same and get there first.
It was a frantic work, and the profit margins were small. Nick Leeson wan ted to move into proprietary trading which is make own decision about when to buy and sell, but for the first year he was content to be an order filler for Fernando in Tokyo and their Singapore clients.
Nick Leeson did hired two trades which is George Seow and Maslan Tuladi to operate on the floor. While Eric Chang will help him on the telephone, and Risselle Sng and Norhaslinda ( Linda ) Hassan to handle the settlements in the back office. Since Nick Leeson had not taken the exam at that time, he had no authority to trade on the SIMEX floor itself.
Throughout 1992 the customers rolled in. When Nick Leeson first arrived in Singapore, SIMEX was only doing a daily total of some 4,000 trades. It was a tiny exchange. Most of the big dealers dealt the Nikkei in Osaka because they could buy and sell in size. Then, during the summer of 1992, just as he was getting going, an amazing surge in business happened. Osaka imposed various stringent regulations on the futures and options dealers which are they had to pay much higher deposits when they dealt and there was no interest earned on the deposits. The interest was just pocketed by the Osaka authorities. A minimum commission was also stipulated.
The Osaka authorities made a bad misjudgment that within weeks the trade started to move in Singapore. Between 8:00 in the morning until 2:15 in the afternoon, the number of contracts traded rose from 4,000 a day to over 20,000 a day, and Nick Leeson was taking his share of the orders without stopping, flashing them to George or Maslan, and then picking up the next call almost before they had gone into the pit.
In any dealing system there are errors which are someone misunderstands a hand signal and buys the wrong amount , or buys at the wrong price, or thinks they have discretion when they do not, or buys the March contract rather than the September one, or even buys rather than sells. If this happens, the bank has to take the loss. The customer has bought or sold in good faith, and will have gone on to trade on the back of the first deal. If it was dealers’ mistake, they had to try and rectify it. If there was nothing to be done, the error was booked into separate computer account known as the "Error Account", the position closed off and the resulting loss will written off against the firm’s profit.
When they started dealing and they had an Error Account numbered 99905, into which they dumped all the errors before they were transferred over to London. Error Account 88888 became dormant almost as soon as it had been created. But it was still lodged in the computer, it had still been created as a bona fide error account, and not much later Nick Leeson dug it out of his memory and out of the computer.
On 17 July, Nick Leeson works with his just recruited worker, Kim Wong. Kim Wong make a mistake that makes Nick Leeson could not see the balancing purchase when he confronted the piles of trading slips. Kim Wong make a mistake by contravention of customer’s orders, she had sold rather than bought the twenty contracts. The client would expect to have bought these contracts, and they would have to make them good to him. Since the market price had risen throughout the afternoon, Barings had sold well below the market level. In fact, if they had to make the client good and also reserve the wrong deal which Kim had gone on the exchange, they would have to buy back the forty contracts and lose £20,000 doing so.
It all the Simon Jones and Mike Killian’s fault in Tokyo because they wanted to keep the costs down and Simon Jones had hired this girl on a salary of £4,000 a year. Nick Leeson booked a fictitious trade to the customer, Fuji Bank, for the twenty contracts they had bought. To do this, he made a notation on the daily trade sheet that Fuji needed to be made good for the twenty Nikkei contracts at the price they had specified. From the daily trade sheet, this trade would be booked in the computer in the normal course of business, so when Risselle keyed in the trade it would reconcile with the daily trade sheet. However, if it was left at there, it would obviously cause a problem since they had not actually done the trade in question, so Nick Leeson had to book the opposite reconciling part of that trade. He asked Risselle to enter a sale of twenty contracts into the computer as well, booked to Error Account 88888.
The position after Kim’s mistake was that Fuji had sold twenty Nikkei contracts. The position after Nick Leeson entries to the daily trade sheet was that history had been rewritten because Fuji had now fictitiously bought twenty contracts at the original price they wanted and Error Account 88888 had sold the same twenty contracts at the same price to balance that, and the real sale of the contracts which Kim had done was booked to 88888 as well. Thus,
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