Monday, September 10, 2007

Nick Leeson: The man who broke the bank

Haha, interestingly, today I was grappling with the decision whether or not to buy put warrants for either STI or HSI after Dow suffered a 250 points drop when the job data came out last Fri. Last night, I had already identified the support level and the warrants for trading and put them all in my watchlist. Wanted to get in the first thing in the morning and cash it out intraday.

However, I did not do it eventually. Reasons are:

1. Risky speculative trades - I know my own technical analysis's not fantastic. So why am I risking a few thousands just to earn a few hundreds? Yes, it's good money that can be earned in like half a day? But the risk is there. I'm losing money mainly because of my warrants trading earlier part of this year, and I WON'T forget that.

2. The market did not respond as badly as I think it will. Opinions are often wrong, but the market is always right. Firstly, the drop straight to support level of 3400 for STI is expected. It is now hovering at that level, perhaps waiting for confirmation from HSI which opens at 10am. In fact, most counters are fighting back their lows from kan cheong spiders who sold off first thing in the morning.

3. I was negative because I've been reading too many negative postings in cna forum and other blogs. If I enter a trade based on this, I'm trading emotionally with reasons that are not my own. I'm just following the crowd. If anything, I should be acting contrarian and buy calls to anticipate the much confirmed rate cut by FED next week on sept 18th. Of course, nothing is guaranteed, except death.

It's interesting that the article below, about Nick Leeson, is about derivatives too. Derivatives is a double edged sword, it can result in quick profits and quicker losses. Take care!


In February of 1995, one man single-handedly bankrupted the bank that financed the Napoleonic Wars, Louisiana Purchase and the Erie Canal. Founded in 1762, Barings Bank was Britain’s oldest merchant bank and Queen Elizabeth’s personal bank. Once a behemoth in the banking industry, Barings was brought to its knees by a rogue trader in a Singapore office. The trader, Nick Leeson, was employed by Barings to profit from low risk arbitrage opportunities between derivatives contracts on the Singapore Mercantile Exchange and Japan’s Osaka Exchange. A scandal ensued when Leeson left a $1.4 billion hole in Barings’ balance sheet due to his unauthorized derivatives speculation, causing the 233-year-old bank’s demise.

Nick Leeson grew up in London’s Watford suburb, and worked for Morgan Stanley after graduating university. Shortly after, Leeson joined Barings and was transferred to Jakarta, Indonesia to sort through back-office mess involving £100 million of share certificates. Nick Leeson enhanced his reputation within Barings when he successfully rectified the situation in 10 months (Risk Glossary).

In 1992, after his initial success, Nick Leeson was transferred to Barings Securities in Singapore and was promoted to general manager, with the authority to hire traders and back office staff. Leeson’s experience with trading was limited, but he took an exam that qualified him to trade on the Singapore Mercantile Exchange (SIMEX) alongside his traders. According to Risk Glossary:

"Leeson and his traders had authority to perform two types of trading:

1. Transacting futures and options orders for clients or for other firms within the Barings organization, and

2. Arbitraging price differences between Nikkei futures traded on the SIMEX and Japan's Osaka exchange.

Arbitrage is an inherently low risk strategy and was intended for Leeson and his team to garner a series of small profits, rather than spectacular gains."

As a general manager, Nick Leeson oversaw both trading and back office functions, eliminating the necessary checks and balances usually found within trading organizations. In addition, Barings’ senior management came from a merchant banking background, causing them to underestimate the risks involved with trading, while not providing any individual who was directly responsible for monitoring Leeson’s trading activities (eRisk). Aided by his lack of supervision, the 28-year-old Nick Leeson promptly started unauthorized speculation in futures on Nikkei 225 stock index and Japanese government bonds (Risk Glossary). These trades were outright trades, or directional bets on a market. This highly leveraged strategy can provide fantastic gains or utterly devastating losses; a stark contrast to the relatively conservative arbitrage that Barings had intended for Leeson.

Nick Leeson opened a secret trading account numbered 88888 to facilitate his furtive trading. Risk Glossary says of Leeson:

He lost money from the beginning. Increasing his bets only made him lose more money. By the end of 1992, the 88888 account was under water by about GBP 2MM. A year later, this had mushroomed to GBP 23MM. By the end of 1994, Leeson's 88888 account had lost a total of GBP 208MM. Barings management remained blithely unaware.

As a trader, Leeson had extremely bad luck. By mid February 1995, he had accumulated an enormous position—half the open interest in the Nikkei future and 85% of the open interest in the JGB [Japanese Government Bond] future. The market was aware of this and probably traded against him. Prior to 1995, however, he just made consistently bad bets. The fact that he was so unlucky shouldn't be too much of a surprise. If he hadn't been so misfortunate, we probably wouldn't have ever heard of him.

Betting on the recovery of the Japanese stock market, Nick Leeson suffered monumental losses as the market continued its descent. In January 1995, a powerful earthquake shook Japan, dropping the Nikkei 1000 points while pulling Barings even further into the red. As an inexperienced trader, Leeson frantically purchased even more Nikkei futures contracts in hopes to gain back the money already lost. The most successful traders, however, are quick to admit their mistakes and cut losses.

Surprisingly, Nick Leeson effectively managed to avert suspicion from senior management through his sly use of account number 88888 for hiding losses, while he posted profits in other trading accounts. In 1994, Leeson fabricated £28.55 million in false profits, securing his reputation as a star trader and gaining bonuses for Barings’ employees (Risk Glossary). Despite the staggering secret losses, Leeson lived the life of a high roller, complete with his $9,000 per month apartment and earning a bonus of £130,000 on his salary of £50,000, according to “How Leeson Broke the Bank.”

The horrific losses accrued by Nick Leeson were due to his financial gambling, as he placed his trades based upon his emotions rather than by taking calculated risks. After the collapse of Barings, a worldwide outrage ensued, decrying the use of derivatives. The truth, however, is that derivatives are only as dangerous as the hands they are placed in. In this case, Nick Leeson was reckless and dishonest. Derivatives can be tremendously useful if used for hedging and controlling risk or even careful trading.

After a series of lies, cover ups and falsified documents, Leeson and his wife fled Singapore for Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. By then, Barings’ senior management had discovered Nick Leeson’s elaborate scheme. The total damage suffered by Barings was £827 million, or $1.4 billion. In February 1995, England’s oldest, most established bank was unable to meet SIMEX’s margin call, and was declared bankrupt. Leeson and his wife were arrested in Frankfurt, Germany on March 3 rd , 1995. That same day, the Dutch bank, ING, purchased Barings for a mere £1 and assumed all of its liabilities (eRisk).

Nick Leeson was placed on trial in Singapore and was convicted of fraud. He was sentenced to six and a half years in a Singaporean prison, where he contracted cancer (Risk Glossary). He survived his cancer, and while imprisoned, wrote an autobiography called “Rogue Trader”, detailing his role in the Barings scandal. “Rogue Trader” was eventually made into a movie of the same name. Nick Leeson was released from prison in July 1999 for good behavior.