Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Flick of The Day: Rogue Trader

In these financially straitened times, in which Banks are once again being brought down by their own hubris, it is interesting to take another look at the story of Nick Leeson, the man who brought down Barings, the oldest merchant bank in the City of London in 1995 as it is told in today's flick of the day, Rogue Trader.
The film opens with a young Leeson, played perfectly by Ewan McGregor, getting into a scuffle in a night club and having his nose broken. We then flick forward to Nick explaining it away to his boss as the result of a car accident. His boss, played by the wonderfully snooty Tim McInnerny, has him lined for a transfer to Indonesia to fix an issue with their bond trading business. Nick handles this task so well that he is rewarded with a transfer to Singapore to manage Barings trading operation there. Crucially he was in charge of both the trading floor team and settlement office team. He could play around with the settlement of his own trades, something that would have ruinous consequences for Barings. Initially, Nick is a success. He has a new wife, Lisa played by Anna Friel, a good job and a bright future. However things soon go awry. A colleague accidently buys 20 contracts when she should have sold, leading to a loss of £20,000. Nick places this trade in an account set up for office errors and is ordered by his superiors to close out the position when the markets open the next day. However, Nick hesitates, hoping for the market to turn so he can turn loss into profit. They don't turn and his loss widens to £60,000 a level he can not own up to. So instead he attempts to engage in unauthorised trading, taking riskier and riskier bets to try and win back his earlier loss. Of course the losses begin to spiral out of control, reaching into the hundreds of millions. All the while, Nick hides them from his superiors in the errors account. The event which eventually causes Nick's downfall is the Kobe earthquake of 1995, the resultant Japanese stock market crash leaving him with losses too large to hide.
The most intriguing aspect of the Leeson tale is the kind of everyman quality he seems to possess. Whether it is down to McGregor's portrayal or not, he comes across as a deeply average guy who is out of his depth. This is not some shining Captain of Industry but a kid from Watford with some O-Levels and not much else. Ambitious and in a job he craved, he attempts to fix a mistake and makes it worse. It is human nature, and as things begin to get worse and worse, you can see the inner turmoil all over Ewan McGregor's face. Perhaps the film takes an overly sympathetic view, not unlikely given it is based on Leeson's own tell all memoir. The other striking thing is the idiocy of the men at the top of the bank, they seemed to have no real concept of what Leeson did and how he happened to be making such vast sums of money for them. The attitude seemed to be that who cares how he does it, its working. All of the senior managers are portrayed as air headed Old Etonians, more gentlemen then bankers. This is difficult to refute given the ultimate conclusion of the tale.

I, Nicholas Leeson, have just lost 50 million quid, in one day!

The end, when it comes seems as much a relief to Leeson as anything else, though tellingly he never expected to spend time in prison. Sentenced to six and a half years in Prison, he was released on humanitarian grounds in 1999 suffering from colon cancer. Having survived this, he moved to Ireland, remarried and eventually became Chief Executive of Galway United FC. 
The film is a satisfying retelling of Leeson's rise and fall and the Bank he took with him, but nothing more. McGregor is excellent as usual, giving the character depth and feeling and a sympathy that makes him likeable enough despite his nefarious activities, quite possibly because all of his superiors are portrayed as pompous twits. Worth a look on an otherwise uneventful day.

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