‘The bell chimed for eight o’clock, and within one and a half seconds, the time it took for everyone to fill their lungs, the noise level exploded from a loud hubbub of chatter into a deafening roar… My products were notionally called Japanese Government Bonds, or futures, or options, but nobody cared what the hell they were. They were just numbers to be bought and sold. It was like trading ether.’
So riffs another keyed-up passage from Nick Leeson’s Rogue Trader: How I Brought Down Barings Bank and Shook the Financial World, a paperback probe into the primal appeal of the bear pit. Delivered with the high drama of Liar’s Poker and the black humour of American Psycho (you suspect Leeson was in possession of dog-eared copies of both books when he wrote his own ode to the bull-market banking culture of the late-eighties and early-nineties) it is both a cautionary tale for the Wall Street wannabe and exactly the opposite. A confession-cum-critique of what happens when capitalism is left to run riot, it zings with enough Wolf of Wall Street-worthy monologues to read like a movie pitch. It must have struck a chord with James Dearden, because the writer/director made a film about Leeson while the ex-derivatives trader was still in the nick. Belfort had to wait six years for Scorsese to take his memoir to the big screen.
Twenty-five years after it was published from a cell in Singapore’s Tanah Merah prison, Rogue Trader, a book about derivatives, arbitrage trading and futures contracts, essentially, remains an improbably rip-roaring read. Much of that has to do with the ability of Leeson, and his as-told-to co-author Edward Whitley, to present the shibboleths of the trading floor in layman’s terms. ‘Futures contracts enable you — for the cost of a small ‘margin’ payment up font — to buy or sell a basket of shares at a given price in the future, typically anchored around four dates: the ends of March, June, September and December.’ More has to do with the weird obsession that you, I, society in general, but young men in particular, have with the billion-dollar fuck-ups of white-collar criminals.
Before we get to the bizarre phenomenon of canonising financial scoundrels as some sort of latter-day Robin Hoods — the notion of the swashbuckling barrow boy giving the two-fingered salute to the Sheriff of Wall Street is about as watertight as the buckskinned gunslinger avenging the rustlers on the American frontier — it pays to be reminded of the tale of the original rogue trader and the collective fixation that followed.
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