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Childish, Self Justifying Screed, But Still Immensely Interesting
on 5 April 2010
Viewed purely as a work of literature, this book falls at almost every hurdle. As a character, Leeson fails to capture the reader's sympathy or to demonstrate much real insight into the world around him. The written style is un-distinctive, and no better or worse than most reportage. Had the events in this book not occurred, it would be just another rather forgettable first novel.
However, this is the real historical record of the inner thoughts and motivations of one of the first real screwups of the age of 'modern' (ie. post big bang) finance. As such, Leeson's first person perspective is hugely interesting to anyone with an interest in finance and financial history. The lessons of this book will not be surprising to anyone with an understanding of the sector, but the first person view of the mind of a fraudster brings academic theories of fraud risk graphically to life. I would say that anyone with an interest in risk governance in the financial sector, particularly trading operations, will get something out of this book. Amongst the narrative there is enough technical discussion for some truly unbelievable facts to pop out; By the time Leeson's position finally collapsed, the margin calls on it had sucked more than half of Baring's entire core capital into the Singaporean trading unit. Whilst Leeson's continuous self justification is obviously rather self serving, in this area he does have a point; Baring's was clearly an institution that had outgrown its internal controls in a big way.
Non-technical readers may get less out of this book for two reasons: In order to get to the fundamental story behind Baring's collapse you have first to read Leeson's fairly uninteresting life story. The second, and most important weakness is Leeson's character. He spends the majority of the book attempting to win the sympathy of the reader and demonstrate that others contributed to his predicament. This attempt never succeeds however because as one reads it becomes painfully apparent that Leeson was an arrogant, unscrupulous, mediocrity who would probably have screwed up sooner or later in any line of work, and was merely granted the opportunity to perpetrate such an epic catastrophe by unfortunate chance. One the reader's sympathy for him has been eroded, his constant self justification grates.
In summary: Very worth reading if you work in financial services, less so if you don't.