Barings Bank

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Historical Background and Inherent Risk Analysis

The history of Baring traces back to 1762. Once remarked as one of the six great powers in Europe, it was the oldest merchant bank in the United Kingdom at the time of its collapse (Robert 2002). Initially its main business was financing foreign trade. After the deregulation of financial market in 1986, Barings expanded aggressively into derivative trading and recruited some extreme risk takers. Aiming at being the pioneer in speculative derivative trading, The Bank appointed Nick Leeson who seemed to understand financial market as the Chief trader in Barings Futures Singapore (BFS).

During the first stage of audit risk assessment, the auditor should obtain understanding of the BFS's business strategy to determine the corresponding risks. The main inherent risk including the following:

Nature of the entity’s business There were two core trading strategies employed by BFS. Baring's management called the first one 'switching'. It related to buying and selling Nikkei 225 futures contracts simultaneously in Singapore International Monetary Exchange (SIMEX) and Osaka Stock Exchange (OSE). BFS also constructed ‘baskets’ that contained weighted stocks composing the Nikkei Index futures, and arbitraged against Nikkei Index Futures itself. The profit came from the prices discrepancy. Although this is theoretically risk-free, BFS may not be able to match the number of contracts at the point of time. Another trading strategy was 'straddle'. It involves selling both put and call options of a standardized quantity of Nikkei 225 Index at same exercising price and same expire date, and then offset the loss from being excised against by premium collected. This kind of straddle will 'generally produce positive earnings (limited by premiums) when markets are stable but can result in unlimited losses if markets are volatile'(Barings Bank and Nick Leeson u.d p. 2). What’s worse, the volume Leeson had BFS exposed was large, which leads to high risk of insolvency if the market moves against his business decisions. The fluctuations of exchange rate and financial market are also part of the risk. The extreme case was the Kobe earthquake that caused significant systematic fall in prices.

Management experience and knowledge The speculative trading of derivatives largely depends on trader's experiences, analysis and judgement of market movement. Nick Leeson was a 25 years old young trader dedicated responsibilities that are not commensurate with his experience and management skills. In addition, the Barings management teams both in Singapore and London lack the knowledge of derivative trading, which leads to ineffective supervision. As a consequence, Leeson practically dominated the company's operating and financing decisions, and controlled the accounting system.

Integrity of management and unusual pressure on management BFS’s culture was affected by the remuneration system based almost entirely on profit. The previous liquidity crisis in 1888 in Barings’ history gives hints to the tendency that management take on significant risk and overextend the securities, at expenses of share holders (Robert 2000). Efforts of increasing transparency and more controls were also resisted.

Internal control and control risk

Although inherent risk cannot be changed, it can be controlled by the entity's effective corporate governance. If auditors identify internal controls to be weak and gives rise to opportunity of fraud, the tests of those controls is less useful. Reliance should be placed upon the predominantly substantive approach

ASA315 describes the methods and audit procedures to gain understanding of control as the following

■ Making inquiries of key management personnel
■ Inspecting entity documents
■ Observing entity activities and operations

Firstly, in order to understand Baring's control environment, auditors should make inquiries of key...
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