The Barings Bank Case

Image in the Mirror


The numerous investigations into the current sensational corporate failures will expose many of the same operations control weaknesses that led to the collapse of the Barings Bank of London. 

When the smoke finally clears from the recent corporate collapses, the image in the mirror may not be an Enron or a WorldCom but it could be the infamous shortfalls in operations risk management that appear not only to be at the core of the failures but are reminiscent of the factors leading to the Barings Bank debacle.

Though the culprit in the Barings case, Nick Leeson, was several layers below the top executives in the recent catastrophes, poor operations risk controls allowed him to commit frauds similar to what we're seeing today.

The year was 1995. Nick Leeson, 28, had risen from the working class of Watford, England, to become the general manager and head trader of Barings Futures Singapore. Barings PLC of London was the oldest merchant bank in England at 233 years. But due to a combination of Leeson's greed and overreaching ambition, and Barings' serious lack of operations risk controls, the bank would soon collapse under a $1.4 billion debt.

Leeson was charged with forgeries and misrepresentations that he made to conceal unauthorized deals while trading on the Singapore International Monetary Exchange (SIME). He served two-thirds of a six-and-a-half year sentence in a Singapore jail.

Operations risks include, but aren't limited to: human resource management risk; vendor management risk; custody of assets risk; accounting and financial disclosure risk; technology risk; physical security, natural hazard, and environmental risk; fraud and embezzlement risk (internal and external); legal and political risk; modeling risk; and compliance risk.

Operations risks can be financially troubling if not devastating. The corresponding risk to reputation can be long term and even crippling as customers stay away for months if not years after an operations risk incident. Audit committees, CEOs, senior management, line-of-business executives, auditors, and fraud examiners must work collectively to control and mitigate operations risk.

Barings is the poster child for a business that practiced the following seven deadly business control sins.

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