Two names stood out in the Press for me this week. First I was genuinely aghast to see the name of Nick Leeson reappear in the media. Remember him? He was the guy who worked for Barings Bank, was in effect gambling unimaginable sums in the money markets and ran up £862 million of losses for the bank which subsequently collapsed. He went on the run and was eventually extradited from Singapore, tried and sentenced to prison. All that was 20 years ago, long before the wholesale insane speculation-and-credit boom that brought about the recent (2007/8 onward) economic collapse from which we’re only just starting to recover.
He has done his time, and I bear him no ill will: frankly, what he did didn’t affect me in any case. But I was astonished to read that he’s now back in town and has set up a company called Risk Team. His firm will sell its expertise to major financial institutions in order (you got it!) to prevent rogue traders running wild with the result that they both break the law and endanger their employers. Leeson told The Times that there was and still is no effective regulation in the City, and what he did could happen again. He also, by the way, blamed lack of training and supervision for his getting carried away and behaving so wrongly.
Hold on, I hear you say. Isn’t this a case of poacher turned gamekeeper?
The answer is yes, of course: it’s precisely that. I’m surprised someone hasn’t thought of it sooner. After all, every firm with a major stake in cyber-security firms (including, one is led to believe, secret services on either side of the Atlantic) employs former (often convicted) hackers to run their anti-hacking departments. No one knows better than they how a serious, determined hacker will operate – and how much damage they might do.
It appears Leeson’s move in his world is an exact parallel. Now, either the world is completely mad, the asylum being now taken over by the lunatics (something I begin to suspect more and more, all the time), or there is a perfect logic in all this.
But can I bring myself to wish luck to the man whose name, 20 years ago, was a byword for everything that was bad and bent in banking? No, I can’t.
He brought down the nation’s oldest merchant bank (which didn’t necessarily deserve sympathy, because it should have exercised proper oversight), and he undermined confidence in the country’s financial institutions (something others did later, and to far greater effect). More to the point, what he did was a criminal act. So do I resent the fact that, having honed all those skills, he might make a handsome living from the next generation of fat cats? I’m afraid I do!
I have much more sympathy with another name in print this week. Britain’s youngest boat skipper is, or was, Jake Bowman-Davies, aged 17. He made a bit of a splash as a hero. When his fishing boat hit rocks earlier this year, he saved the lives of his crew.
Unfortunately, that idol proved to have feet of clay. There is no doubting his valour: but his glory was diminished by the fact that he was skippering the boat at the time that it hit the rocks. Just a bit of bad luck, surely? Or perhaps part of a pattern.
He did it again, and for a second time the boat (this one worth £300,000) had to be scrapped. Either the coast of Pembrokeshire is particularly rocky and hazardous, or Jake is an especially unlucky bloke. Or both.
It seems to me that Jake is a strong contender to feature in one of those Compendia of Great British Disasters. It’s hard to imagine him bouncing back as a skipper from such a catastrophic record.
On the other hand, he might take inspiration from Nick Leeson. He may have been unlucky, accident-prone or even incompetent: but, he didn’t break any laws.
Sadly, I wouldn’t give him much chance of beating Nick Leeson’s salary any time in the near future. But then, money always did go to money, especially when it’s someone else’s.