TUAN NICK & BARINGS' BILLIONS

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The Barings bank crash is of course one of the year's (the decade's?) great stories, but everyone is blaming it on the wrong people.

And I'll get to that. But first, to personalize it just for a moment, where were you when you were 28 years old and did any sane company or person or institution permit you to handle vast sums of money unsupervised?

When I was 28 I was living in Georgetown in a $65 a month one-bedroom apartment just off Wisconsin Avenue, was covering Capitol Hill for the Fairchild newspapers, was driving a 1954 red Ford convertible, had not yet been married, was making maybe a hundred and forty a week, and no responsible person, nor even a member of my own family, would have trusted me to cross town with a thousand dollars without either being mugged, losing it to confidence men or simply having it fall from my pocket into a handy sidewalk grating.

Twenty-eight is a splendid age but not necessarily reliable.

The reference here is, of course, to young Nicholas W. Leeson, described in a caption in the front page of The New York Times (and by now on the covers of all the great magazines) as "the 28-year-old at the center of the Barings collapse."

It was young Master Leeson who while working for Barings in their Singapore office, in charge of sums described to be as high as 29 billion dollars, somehow managed to lose a billion or so in derivative transactions and in so doing bring down a bank so storied in both fact and legend that it financed Wellington's campaign against Napoleon and gave us at least one Viceroy of Egypt, Sir Evelyn Baring, who, as I recall, sent "Chinese" Gordon up the Nile to punish the dervish and then failed somehow to send any troops along to help out poor General Gordon, who eventually lost his head.

Quite literally, since the Mahdi had it chopped off and mounted on a spear.

But I digress. The subject at hand is the failure of Barings bank and the role played in its downfall by a young Englishman sent out to the fabled East to make his mark. You'll recall a wonderful Bogart line in "Beat the Devil," screenplay jointly by John Huston and Truman Capote, in which Bogie remarks "there are certain kinds of Englishmen who go out to British East. British East is out there and they go to it."

Bogie was discussing East Africa but the rule obtains. Wherever the British Union Jack has flown East of Suez, there to this very day you will find Englishmen who have "gone out." And certainly, you cannot get much farther East than Singapore, located as it is at the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula just across the straits from Indonesia and not all that far from the Road to Mandalay and all those wonderful Kipling backlot locations.

The geography is important because, at least in those first few days after Master Leeson's somewhat noodle-headed wheeling & dealing became public knowledge and right around the globe Barings banks were shutting down with board members knocking back the port in despair, the reports were that young Leeson had last been seen heading north into the swamps and backwaters and jungles of Malaysia in the general direction of Kuala Lumpur.

As these picturesque stories filtered in I had visions of Leeson in a white linen suit, somewhat the worse for wear, a white Panama hat atop his sunburned head, a half-empty gin bottle in his jacket pocket, with, perhaps, a sloe-eyed native gal in tow, paddling a Malay proa (a local canoe, if your Malaysian is a bit rusty).

Which is where I get back to my original thesis of ascribing blame in this unfortunate affair.

The fault is not Master Leeson himself, poor chap. Nor lax supervision by senior management of Barings. Nor even of "The Little Old Lady of Threadneedle Street," the Bank of England itself. Nor was it the gin or the native girls.

The culprit here is Joseph Conrad!

For it was Conrad who, in a dozen novels, inflamed an entire generation of young Englishmen with the romance and intrigue of the storied East. These were marvelous and thrilling tales of madness and lust, of typhoons and treasure, of Oriental cunning and duplicity versus English heartiness and valor (as reliable as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding).

Remember "Outcast of the Islands"? It was eventually made into one of the great films, starring Trevor Howard as the "outcast," a remittance man sent out from England, and Robert Morley as the boorish planter who mocked him but was himself, eventually, shamed and brought down. Who can ever forget "Kurtz" lurking up there in the backwaters of the Congo?

Or, surely Conrad's masterwork, "Lord Jim"?

I note in the press reports that while in school, young Leeson was only mediocre at his sums, hardly a mathematical whiz kid. Well, I'm not surprised. The chap probably spent all his leisure time reading Conrad and dreaming about someday himself being out there in the East like "Tuan Jim." Why couldn't "Tuan Jim" become .*.*. "Tuan Nick"?

Is it really very sporting to permit young Englishmen to read Conrad and then not expect them to go off to British East or to the Malay Peninsula and get into trouble?

And of course as the story develops, my image of Leeson with his white linen suit and gin bottle and native girl in tow, collides abruptly with dispatches from the scene which describe the young banker as having vanished in a Porsche with his young wife, leaving behind in their "stylish and leafy Orchard neighborhood" on Singapore, as The New York Times had it, two mountain bikes and racks of drying laundry on the balcony.

Which rather screws up my entire thesis, doesn't it, since I don't believe there were any mountain bikes in Conrad.

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