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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Leeson Faces 'Bank Breaker' Legacy

SINGAPORE -- During Asia's economic boom in the early 1990s, cocky young financial traders showed off by setting fire to money at Harry's Bar in Singapore.

Nick Leeson became Harry's most famous customer with a bigger stunt. His spectacular futures trading gambles lost $1.4 billion. They brought down Barings, Britain's oldest bank, in 1995 and sent Leeson to jail.

Leeson will leave Singapore's Changi prison on Saturday, having served nearly four years for hiding his disastrous bets. The 32-year-old Briton will walk into a vastly different financial landscape.

"Everybody's a lot more responsible now. If Nick did anything, he taught them all a lesson,'' Harry's general manager, Margaret Woodward, said of the bankers and traders who frequent the bar.

Asia's two-year economic crisis has sobered the mood at Harry's, and Leeson's exploits helped slap the financial world out of a stupor that blinded some bankers to the dangers of a rogue trader.

Woodward said she saw Leeson's fellow traders tear up and burn Singapore 1,000-dollar bills, each the equivalent of $600, for kicks in the heady early '90s.

"Nick was always with a group of guys who were big rollers, big spenders. They all were in those days,'' she said. "But they were nice guys, never any trouble f just boisterous.''

Leeson had a reputation in Singapore as a good-natured, working-class rogue who flunked math in high school and became a high-flyer at Barings largely through brashness and taking huge risks.

His downfall came on complex bets that the Japanese stock market would remain stable. But the Tokyo market crashed after an earthquake hit the commercial city of Kobe. Leeson concealed his losses, kept on trading and continued losing.

Analysts say he, if unwittingly, left a positive mark on the trading industry.

"The financial world has become a safer place. It has become a little more difficult for someone to sit there and hide transactions in a desk drawer,'' said Bernhard Eschweiler, head of research in Asia for J.P. Morgan.

Singapore has adopted stricter guidelines for trading management, and regulators have a stronger presence in the field, Eschweiler said.

"You literally have the regulator visiting you,'' he said. "They don't come with much of an early warning.''

Leeson will be freed and deported Saturday, according to Clive Alderton, first secretary of the British High Commission in Singapore. Some newspapers have reportedly offered Leeson a six-figure sum for an interview, but British diplomats say he wants to slip out of Singapore without press coverage.

Nonetheless, he has attained celebrity status. In London last week, Mick Jagger and other big names turned out for a premier of "Rogue Trader,'' a film in which Ewan McGregor and Anna Friel play Leeson and his now ex-wife, Lisa.

Critics have panned the film, and Leeson is in line for less than 5 percent of any profits it makes. A $700,000 advance for Leeson's book, upon which the film is based, has reportedly gone toward his huge legal bills.

While Leeson was in prison, his wife divorced him and married another trader. Last year, Leeson was diagnosed with colon cancer. He had surgery, and doctors give him a 70 percent chance of surviving the next five years.

At Harry's, where tourists can order the "Bank Breaker,'' a cocktail named for Leeson, his release will be commemorated.

"We'll have a Nick Leeson hour, with free beer,'' manager Woodward said.