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'Rogue trader' Nick Leeson: I wanted to kill myself

By Oliver Joy, CNN
April 24, 2013 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Nick Leeson is dubbed the 'original rogue trader' for bad trades which collapsed Barings Bank
  • Leeson now lives in Ireland and has joined GDP Partnership, an Irish restructuring firm
  • Leeson said his time in a jail, with drug lords and sex offenders, made him consider taking his own life
  • But he survived incarceration and colon cancer and has since rebuilt his life

Wisbech (CNN) -- Chatting casually over a pot of tea in the sleepy village of Wisbech, Cambridgeshire, Nick Leeson remarks on his time spent in a maximum security prison in Germany in 1995: "That was the one time I contemplated suicide."

Thrown in with Yugoslav gunrunners, Bolivian drug lords and sex offenders, "I wouldn't have been able to do it myself though," Leeson added, stirring in the milk.

"But there were these two Italian boys. One of them was an ice cream vendor, Luigi, and another well-dressed man, Salvatore. They were connected." Leeson began sipping his tea, and suddenly laughed at how his story sounded like an episode from Italian mafia drama The Sopranos.

Leeson, once considered the whiz kid of the Asian derivative markets before his bad trades on Japanese stocks collapsed UK merchant bank Barings, was thinking of doing a final deal: One with his own life.

"It would have cost me £10,000 ($15,268) I think," he said, struggling to remember, as if the detail is minor. "I presumed it would happen in the showers one day, someone would just knife me."

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From Watford to a Singapore prison

As the Watford-born Leeson sat regaling the most definitive time of his life, the anthem from Les Miserables "I dreamed a dream," played on loop at the Rose & Crown Hotel, which is owned by his uncle-in-law. Leeson was due to give a speech for charity in the hotel that evening.

It provided an eerily fitting soundtrack to his tale. The lyrics "I was young and unafraid, and dreams were made and used and wasted" resonate with Leeson's life. He went from high-flying trader to convicted fraudster, spending three and a half years in a gang-ridden Singapore prison. He has now joined GDP Partnership, an Irish restructuring firm.

At the Rose & Crown, the couple on the next table appear unaware they are seated next to one of the 20th century's most infamous financial convicts. They're chatting about the hotel's renovations while Leeson is calculating the cost of his trades.

"The press were saying I could spend up to 84 years in prison," he said, offering me sugar. "You don't have to be an MIT mathematician to work out I was gonna be dead."

"I spoke to my wife and father about it [suicide]," he said, explaining that they would have to negotiate the assisted suicide on his behalf from outside prison. "Obviously they cried but you have to deal with the reality of situation."

Surviving jail, divorce and cancer

Almost 20 years on and having weathered incarceration, divorce and colon cancer, the man dubbed the "original rogue trader" now makes his money on the after-dinner speaking circuit; a far cry from his lucrative days earning $76,000 a year with bonuses of up to $228,000 as a trader speculating on Asian financial markets.

When asked if he would press a magic button to take it all back, Leeson told CNN: "There is no such button." Describing himself as a "realist," it may be hard to understand how he could have lost $1.3 billion, destroying a 233-year-old bank in the process. It's even harder to understand why he thought he could hide it away in a secret account known as the "five eights."

Public perception of him as a symbol of capitalist greed may precede him, but Leeson doesn't shirk the responsibility. "Nobody other than me should be accountable for what went wrong at Barings," he said. Leeson has no sympathy for rogue traders Jerome Kerviel of Societe Generale and Kweku Adoboli of UBS, who lost $6.4 billion and $1.8 billion respectively.

"Anything that they've done and hidden is fraud." Leeson said abruptly. "I think it's a macho culture that's evolved. When things go wrong, there's a certain age group that is usually involved; young men."

After leaving his desk and fleeing with his wife to Kuala Lumpur, Leeson resurfaced days later and was arrested in Frankfurt at the age of 28. Imprisoned and awaiting deportation to Singapore, Leeson started to reflect and accept responsibility for his actions.

"Prison was tough," said Leeson, who now found himself mixing with dangerous criminals from the Chinese and Malaysian underworld. "I was the only white guy in there."

He rattled off details of a typical day of incarceration: "You're locked up in a cell for 23 hours a day with two other people. You wake up at 6am in the morning and it's a hundred degrees outside. You get three books a month. So there's not much to occupy your mind." Leeson could still recall the sores on his pelvis, ankles and elbows that he developed from sleeping on the floor.

At the time, Leeson said he received messages of support to keep him sane, including nude photographs from air hostesses. "I never got the naked pictures, I just got the letter," he joked. "The Singaporean authorities took the good bit away."

Leeson paused for a moment, before recalling the darkest days of his incarceration. After a strip search and contraband swipe of his cell, he refused an order to return to a cell with two inmates he feared would fight. Leeson was punished, put in solitary confinement for 31 days.

"They would turn the lights on at night and turn them off in the day. There were no windows and there was a hole that they put your food through."

"I used to walk up and down 780 times in the cell and that was an hour. That's how I passed time. You start singing to yourself." Leeson chuckled. That was hard, because he didn't know the words to many songs.

After his release from solitary confinement, Leeson was diagnosed with colon cancer. "I had an emergency operation to remove a tumor in my stomach that was 9cm by 5cm. It was big."

Peering over my notebook, he pointed and added quickly as if to make sure I got the all the detail: "Oh, and I had six months of chemotherapy in prison."

Leeson was released in 1999, aged 32. Broke, and with no job prospects, he returned to the UK, where he continued cancer treatment. Leeson overcame his illness, and set about rebuilding his life.

He sold his story for a six-figure sum to the Daily Mail, wrote a book and had a film made about his time at Barings called "Rogue Trader" starring Ewan McGregor.

But "I've never seen a penny of it," he said.

Barings' liquidators had served Leeson with an injunction of £100 million and took 50% of proceeds from his story. "I asked them 'if I got a job flipping burgers, how much would you want?' and they told me "half.'"

A quiet life in Ireland

Now 46, Leeson lives the quiet life in Galway, Ireland, and it's difficult to see from his retiring demeanor how he could have destroyed one of the world's most prestigious institutions.

Leeson is philosophical about his past these days: "I created a success story that everyone at the bank wanted to believe." He laughed at how absurd that sounds now.

Asked if a rogue trader will ever bring down a bank again, Leeson confidently replied: "No doubt about it. If you ask anyone in the banking industry, they will say 'yes, but it won't be me.'"

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