The film describes Barings as one of the oldest and most prestigious merchant banks in Britain, run by the same family for decades with extensive ties to Britain’s elites. However, the Bank harboured a terrible secret. In the late 19th century Barings almost went bankrupt after investing heavily in South American bonds, including backing the construction of a sewer system in Buenos Aires. The bank was saved by The Bank of England, but Edward Baring, the head of the bank, was financially ruined and never recovered.
The documentary explores the culture of Barings and of the financial markets during the 1990s, and how Nick Leeson was able to cause another huge loss of money to the bank, this time bankrupting the company. He did this by claiming fictitious profits on the Singapore International Monetary Exchange, SIMEX, and using money requested from London as margin payments on fictitious trades to finance his loss-making positions.
Leeson, the film suggests, had an “amazing ability to manipulate and deceive those around him” but also points out that Barings “willingly entered into a dream he wove, lured by the prospect of vast sums of money.” Leeson, interviewed in jail, argues that he was only able to perpetrate such a massive fraud because many of the senior executives at Barings had no idea how the modern system of finance, which emerged in the 1980s, really worked.
The film details the fates of many of the people who were involved in the scandal, including Peter Baring who “has promised never to work in the City of London again.” Hong Kong merchant banker Steven Clarke observes the class-based humour of the downfall of Barings: “For a boy from Watford to bring a grand firm down, I mean it was a social insult as well. It wasn’t even one of their own kind.”