The lesson of Nick Leeson

Allan Fotheringham March 13 1995

The lesson of Nick Leeson

Allan Fotheringham March 13 1995

The lesson of Nick Leeson



Your agent, some moons ago, once enrolled for the celebrated evening seminars at the University of Toronto conducted by Marshall McLuhan, the genius that no one could ever understand.

Tom Wolfe, bedazzled from New York City, posed the question: what if McLuhan in fact was the most formative thinker since Darwin, Freud and Marx—what if he’s right? That the medium indeed is the message. Almost no one could understand.

One point McLuhan made was that artists—writers, painters, whatever—are the DEW Line of the future—the Distant Early Warning system in the Arctic that was supposed to tell us when the Russkie missiles were arriving. Artists are always ahead of their times, if only we would listen to them.

And so we are around to Nick Leeson, the 28-year-old computer sharpie in Singapore who can shake world economies more than J. P. Morgan or the Vanderbilts or the Rothschilds ever could. Thanks to the brilliance of the old-money dynasty of Barings—the bank that financed the Napoleonic wars and funded our CPR and Grand Trunk Railway that evolved into the CN that Paul Martin has just privatized—a little twit from workingclass Brit who is good at computer jiggerypokery can shake the Bank of England.

We now shift to last fall in Toronto. There arrives one linda Davies, model-tall, blond, dropdead looks. She arrives in Prego restaurant where the expense accounts fly, in the currently fashionable kilt short skirt and knee-high boots and stops traffic. The busboys faint.

She is a graduate of Oxford, in the prestigious degree of politics, economics and philosophy. She thinks she will do something different. She will attempt to invade the allmale world of The City—London’s squaremile ghetto of homburgs and now red suspenders that has been (until Leeson) the world’s financial centre.

With her brains, she succeeded in the new world of arbitrage and computers and leveraged buyouts for six years—taking a year off

in New York to master its Wall Street mystique. One day, sitting at her computer that at a touch linked her to all the red suspenders in Manhattan and Frankfurt and Tokyo and Hong Kong, she had an idea.

With all this power given to the greedy little twirps around her, she thought what if? What if someone wanted to misuse that power? She quit and wrote a novel, based on one of these computer whiz-kids who decided to exploit the system, make a gazillion, while also being employed by the Bank of England as a mole who would rat on his mates.

The “novel,” Nest of Vipers, has made her internationally famous and millions. The title of course is close to Barbarians at the Gate, best-selling exposé of the infamous leveraged buyout scandal of RJR Nabisco, the vehicle of Winnipeg’s Ross Johnson, Brian Mulroney’s pal who used to use his company’s executive jets to fly his dog to golf tournaments.

Linda Davies, now only 31, is an international star. Her book has been translated in 16 countries. Little, Brown of Canada published it here last year. Bantam-Doubleday, who print John Grisham, grabbed her and is just putting it out in the United States. She’s completed the obligatory publicity tour. MGM has bought it for $2 million.

All she is doing, naturally, is proving McLuhan’s point. She wrote three years ago what sweet-faced little Nick Leeson accomplished in Singapore last week. When computers talk only to computers, where are the well-dressed members of the Oxford aristocracy who own the bank where the Queen banks? They’re still at the club over port.

Leeson, the working-class kid from Watford, says his Barings bosses knew all along what he was doing and were just hoping he made the big score. Does anyone believe that those trading with Michael Milken—who went to jail after making more personally in one year than McDonalds worldwide—did not know what he was up to?

Barbarians are at the Gate. It is a Nest of Vipers. Chaps who take three-hour lunches leaving the heavy lifting to voracious young men who see themselves retiring at 35 if burnout, does not come first. Leeson boasted to friends of making $1.5 million in the previous year. Why did he want more? Because the anonymous culture of the computer, so tempting, made it seem so easy.

Linda Davies, now in Vanity Fair and everywhere, is working on the sequel, Wilderness of Mirrors. She has discovered, her London and New York bond trader background informing her, that—Hong Kong disappearing as a money market with China taking over the British colony in 1997—the next hot spot will be ’Nam. Where Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich and Phil Gramm declined to fight.

Saigon will be the new centre of the fastestgrowing money market on the Pacific Rim. And guess where Linda Davies, with the fashion kilt and the Oxford degree, is doing some of her research? At the Vancouver Stock Exchange, the Wild West version of the casino.

Where they produce Nick Leeson wannabes every week. Where those in charge pretend not to know what the kids in red suspenders are doing on their computers.

Nick Leeson just took it to the extreme. The computer age allowed him to talk only to other computers, and the old boys who exploited his expertise went to the club and hoped he was going to make them millions.

McLuhan would nod and laugh. Linda laughs and goes to the bank.