x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

West is home to rogue traders and interest rate scandals

Fraud and financial scams on a grand scale in the Arab world are something of a rarity.

Fraud and financial scams on a grand scale in the Arab world are something of a rarity.

But, from rogue traders to the unlawful manipulation of interest rates, the West has been embroiled for decades in successive cases of graft and scandals involving vast sums.

However, the most infamous recent example began in Singapore, where the British broker Nick Leeson's ruinously speculative trading while working as a derivatives broker brought down Barings, London's oldest merchant bank.

He had been appointed by Barings as the general manager of futures dealings on the Singapore International Monetary Exchange in 1992.

By the time he wrote his "I'm Sorry" note and went briefly on the run in February 1995, his fraudulent activities had caused losses of £827 million (Dh4.67 billion at today's conversion rate).

This was twice the trading capital available to Barings, which was declared insolvent three days after Mr Leeson's flight.

He was later jailed for six and a half years but granted early release, in 1999, on medical grounds. His autobiography, Rogue Trader, was turned into a film of the same name and, after a spell as chief executive of an Irish football team, Mr Leeson now earns a living from after-dinner speaking.

Much more recently, the Libor scandal reportedly cost local and regional governments in the United States alone at least US$6bn. With the two leading US mortgage providers, Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, said to have suffered to the tune of $3bn, the full impact is likely to have been enormous though it may never be accurately quantified.

"This dwarfs by orders of magnitude any financial scam in the history of markets," CNN has quoted Andrew Lo, a professor of finance at the MIT Sloan school of management in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as saying.

Among banks under investigation, Barclays has faced huge fines on both sides of the Atlantic and criminal prosecutions of individuals from other financial institutions are pending.

Libor, or the London Interbank Offered Rate, is an average interest rate using a formula based on the rates declared by major banks.

In the US in 2008, amid growing losses and alarming falls in stock value because of its exposure to "toxic" mortgage debt, the fourth largest American investment bank, Lehman Brothers, filed for bankruptcy with record debts estimated at $613bn against assets of $639bn, and more than 100,000 creditors.

It was a corporate disaster that had much wider reverberations, contributing in no small measure to the global financial crisis. An official report accused executives of having massaged quarterly figures to make the bank's finances seem more stable.

"The 'Lehman effect' wrecked self-confidence and companies froze in fear," says Avi Dan, the founder of the marketing consultancy Avidan Strategies. He describes the bank's failure as a collapse whose chain reaction on Wall Street "almost destroyed the world".

The authorities' inability to press criminal charges was a source of disquiet. In a hearing of a US house of representatives committee, Lehman's chairman and chief executive, Richard Fuld, was asked by Henry Waxman, a Democrat: "Your company is now bankrupt, our economy is in crisis, but you get to keep $480m. I have a very basic question for you. Is this fair?"

Mr Fuld replied his true earnings were about $300m in pay and bonuses for the previous eight years.

If investigators have yet to establish criminal conduct in the case of Lehmans, the downfall of the US stockbroker and financial adviser Bernard Madoff in the same year revealed the biggest proven fraud in US history. Madoff ran a so-called Ponzi schemes in which investors are paid from their own or other investors' money rather than from real earnings.

Investors all over the world lost money, in some cases facing ruin. Court-appointed trustees calculated that, of some $36bn paid into the scheme, about half was missing. The consequences for Madoff were also of a huge scale: a 150-year jail term representing several times the life expectancy of a man already aged 71 when sentenced in 2009.