Movie Review: Rogue Trader (1999)
Rogue Trader is a story of a guy who caused a collapse of the world’s second-oldest bank in 1995. 20 years have passed since the film’s release so we’re a bit late for a review but we feel that it’s an important movie to remember because it’s underappreciated and misunderstood.
We’ll briefly cover the plot, explain what Nick Leeson did wrong, dig into the futures contracts, and look at common criticisms that this movie has been receiving.
Easy Portfolio covers a variety of topics in finance, economics, and business, but sometimes we write about culture: movies and books. So far we covered “The Big Short” and “Rich Dad Poor Dad”. Even economists have to rest sometimes and what can be better than watching a nice movie with Ewan McGregor that is not only fun and entertaining but provides some educational value as well?
Let’s begin with a brief plot description and a reminder: this movie is based on the actual events that took place in the nineties.
Table of Contents
United Kingdom and Barings Bank
“I've discovered it's not actually terribly difficult to make money in the securities business.”
British Barings Bank was founded in 1762 by Sir Francis Baring. This respected bank was involved in the Louisiana Purchase and many other historical deals. It was even called “the sixth great European power” at some point in its history. For many years the bank was successful by being heavily involved in international and domestic financial operations, but in the nineties, the world was changing rapidly (the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rise of the Asian countries, technological revolution, etc.). Barings had to explore new markets and try to adapt to the rapidly changing world.
Bank’s management planned to expand in the emerging Asian markets, they just needed to find the right guy for the job.
“I'd never even heard of Barings before I started working for them.”
Nick Leeson, the main “hero” of the movie, played by Ewan McGregor, wasn’t exactly a part of the English elite. He drinks in pubs, he’s not that well-educated (he got a lot of C and D grades and he failed mathematics). He came from a small town of Watford, South East England.
Somehow, he got a job as a clerk at Coutts, a private bank, where he worked with crediting and debiting client accounts.
After Coutts, as a young man of 20 years of age, he managed to secure a job at Morgan Stanley in their futures and options office, and just after 2 years, he jumped to Barings Securities. A fascinating career for a man with such a background.
A side note, the movie does emphasize the fact that Nick is an underdog, an outsider and a person who got incredibly lucky in his career, there are a few moments when we can see that the times are changing and the new times need a new kind of man, but some viewers often miss this important psychological point of how a very old and respected financial institution ends up hiring such a guy and why it has happened. The bank needed a new vision, a new strategy for the new world, and Nick was the perfect man, at least he fooled everyone to think that he was.
Nick Leeson’s personality is controversial and it causes arguments to this day. Some people say that he is just a talented fraud, somebody like Mike in the American TV show “Suits”. Others argue that Nick actually wasn’t a bad trader and he made several great deals for the bank. In any case, in the movie, he is a brave, ambitious, and lightheaded character with a certain charm.
Singapore and SIMEX
“My team were young, they were hungry, and they didn't have a clue.”
After a while, Barings gave Nick a boring paperwork assignment in Jakarta (Indonesia) which he successfully accomplished. Also, there he met his future wife Lisa, who was sent by the central office to help Nick with the work.
As a reward for his success in Jakarta, he has got a job in Singapore, a much more important market. Nick’s job was to set up new trading operations at SIMEX (Singapore International Monetary Exchange) and assemble a team of locals. Here is the trick though, the management thought that it would be a good idea to save some money and to make Nick responsible for both the trading and administrative offices. The 2-nd one was supposed to look after the 1-st one and you may already feel that there was a problem.
Arguably, this was the biggest mistake the Bank made in its long history. Nick gathered a team of two young guys and two girls. First trading operations were quite successful and Nick made new friends and secured a few wealthy clients, but he experienced some minor losses too.
“I, Nicholas Leeson, have lost 50 million quid... IN ONE DAY!”
To cover a mistake that his employee made, Nick ordered to create a new special account. It was a self-serving move, of course. He didn’t want to lose his job. He asked his colleague with a Chinese background (many people in Singapore are ethnically Chinese) what is her favorite number, she said 8 because it’s a lucky number in China, so he created the “luckiest” account ever - 88888. A mistake on the stock market is not a simple thing to fix; it means that he went against the market, so there was no way to recover from those losses except to win more money than he had already lost, to do so he had to open more trading positions.
The problem was - he was not authorized to execute operations on behalf of the bank, what he was supposed to be doing is to trade for clients and with clients’ money, but Nick found a way around it. He told the management that the magical 88888 account was a client’s account, when, in fact, it was the account of the bank with all the accumulated losses. Nobody, except one office worker, knew about it and Nick did a good job covering it up. Nick was telling everyone that the secret 88888 account belongs to a rich client who preferred to operate in a quiet manner.
London’s office loved Nick’s job because he showed a huge turnover of the capital on paper, he was a very active trader, one of the biggest (some called him a genius, a legend), so he has got nice bonuses for his “success”. Once he even went back to London to give a motivational speech on how his actions in Asia were changing the bank’s history.
Bosses in London weren’t aware of the fact that Nick was performing a doubling strategy with his 88888 account, which is a super-risky, if not insane, approach of some regular casino gamblers. It’s when a player doubles his bet every time he loses. In theory, eventually, a win will recover all the losses, but to do so you need an insane amount of money.
This movie is a perfect example of how a trader can become a speculative player, a gambler.
Futures Contracts and Margin Payments
An important lesson in the story is about the danger of getting a margin call when you trade futures.
The nature of the trading operations Nick performed with futures contracts is mostly virtual. To understand how futures contracts work imagine an agreement to buy or sell something in the future at a particular price. For example, Mark promises John to sell a car to him after 1 month for $25,000. Mark doesn’t have a car now, but he has one month to get it. If he can buy it for less than $25,000, say, for $20,000, he will make $5,000 of profit after he resells this car to John at the delivery date.
These deals are somewhat similar to how short selling works because until the contract is executed, it’s pretty much virtual. To make sure that the deal will go through the broker or the stock exchange requires a margin on the trader’s bank account, the amount of money which will cover a potential loss before the deal is done.
In our example with a car, a third party, who oversees the deal, may require John to have $25,000 on his account because that is how much he is supposed to pay for the car, and Mark should have an adequate amount of money on his account too to make sure he can actually deliver the contract. That is why the stock exchange requires margin payments, which are especially important for long-term contracts.
In Nick’s case, he had to request the office in London to send him more money to cover the huge amount of operations of his imaginary client with the 88888 account, which London’s office did. They questioned it only a few times and even sent a team to check Nick’s operations and the legitimacy of his client, but he, being a very lucky man, managed to avoid being caught by saying that his client has some privacy concerns.
No one could even imagine that there is, in fact, no client. Barings was the client, and all the losses on that account were actually bank’s losses.
A Happy End
“Despite rumors of secret bank accounts and hidden millions, I did not profit personally from my unlawful trading. To be absolutely honest, sometimes I wish I had.”
This game of hiding losses under the mattress couldn’t last forever and one day the Kobe earthquake in Japan caused a huge fall of the Nikkei index while Nick had a lot of long (buy) positions opened. He has tried to play against the market, but failed and then started to run. Eventually, he got caught and went to prison for 6.5 years, Lisa left him, and he even was diagnosed with colon cancer, which he luckily survived.
Losses caused by Nick eventually reached £827 million ($1.4 billion), which was much more than Barings’ trading capital. The world’s 2-nd oldest bank had to declare bankruptcy due to insolvency.
Now Nick Leeson teaches people to avoid the mistakes he made. Here is a recent (2018) short video interview with him on YouTube for Big Brother UK and beautiful host Emma, where he shares the current state of his life. Also, you can follow him on Twitter to see the latest.
Is This Film Worth Watching in 2019 - 2020?
This film deserves some attention just because there aren’t that many movies about the stock market, investing, finance, economics, or trading. This is partially due to the fact that those topics are boring for the general public, and that is why later movie producers have tried to make their movies more “cool” by releasing something like “The Wolf Of Wall Street”. The beauty of the Rogue Trader is that it has a nice balance between educational and entertaining parts; this film is fun to watch, and also you will learn something important about the subject.
The movie is worth watching because it teaches us many lessons, which, unfortunately, we still haven’t learned perfectly. A story of just one man who somehow managed to destroy one of the oldest banks in the world. How could it be possible?
The mistakes are known and they are obvious:
- One person managed the trading operations and the office that was supposed to supervise these operations
- No one bothered to check what is in the 88888 account, a quite similar case to the one mentioned in “In The Big Short” with CDOs
- A few people knew about what Nick was up to, yet nobody reported him
- The management was blinded by shinning turnover numbers Nick presented, they didn’t research the nature of those numbers
- Nick’s ego forced him to believe that he can solve all the problems by himself and that fraud is justified
However, even after those events took place, a number of similar cases (Jérôme Kerviel, etc.) occurred again, so the lessons don’t seem to be learned after all.
Ewan McGregor, who plays Nick, is truly one of the greatest actors of all time. 1999 was near the start of his acting career and in the same year he played Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Obviously, not many people noticed him as Nick Leeson, however, he showed high-level acting even for a relatively small movie. Anna Friel, who played Lisa, is a less-known English actress, but she performed well too and showed a wide range of emotions while she worried about Nick’s actions (those that Nick told her about). Other actors did a decent job as well. English management of the Bank appeared as high-class emotionless people in contrast with Nick and his young Asian team of traders.
The acting in the Rogue Trader isn’t perfect, especially when it comes to the less-important characters, however overall it’s quite decent.
The budget of the film is just $12,800,000, which isn’t an impressive number. Director James Dearden was lucky to bring Ewan McGregor in at an early stage of his career. In any case, this budget was enough to show several good scenes in different locations (England, Asia, bars and pubs, the trading floor, a yacht, a colonial building, a hospital, an airport, hotels, etc.).
The total earnings this film has generated are estimated to be £969,565 in the UK, which was a huge failure. This feels unfair and even sad that the general public didn’t want to spend their money on this movie both in the US and UK. It could be connected to the fact that some other big films were coming out at the same time, or maybe the marketing campaign was weak, but mostly it’s due to the sad truth that the ordinary people just don’t like movies about trading, money or economics, even if they feature great actors.
Critics’ Reactions, Reception, and Reviews
The film has its fans and haters, at the time of the release its reception was a bit controversial with mostly negative reviews. Rogue Trader has a rating of 6.4/10 in IMDb, 30% in Rotten Tomatoes, and the Telegraph rated it as low as 2 out of 5. Empire in their short review said that the film is “perilously slow”. Although, Google users in general rate the film at 86% and there are many positive comments online.
Financial blogs and professional business websites mostly admit the importance of the Rogue Trader as an essential part of any collection that includes great films about finance, trading, business, and economics.
Rogue Trader is definitely worth watching and even re-watching for those who want to learn about trading and the stock market. Perhaps, people who are not interested in those subjects could feel a bit boring or slow when they are watching this movie.
If I had to rate this film I would give it a decent mark of: ★ 7 / 10 ★
I don’t find this film boring, and I think it shows Nick as a bad guy after all because the film’s ending is quite dark and he eventually pays for all the mistakes he made. Honestly, I would give this film a higher mark just because I personally enjoy watching it a lot, I re-watch it every 1-2 years, but some of the criticism is fair and the fact that the movie is based on the book that Nick Leeson wrote himself (Rogue Trader: How I Brought Down Barings Bank and Shook the Financial World) makes the whole story a bit less trustworthy.
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