On an unseasonably sunny autumn day in the City of London, a group of about a dozen traders at a commodities brokerage firm were perched around a conference room table, the light sifting in as they listened to a compliance seminar. As it drew to a close, a new speaker stood up and walked to the head of the table. The traders sat up in their chairs. Some pulled out their phones and started googling pictures to see if it was really him, trying to discreetly show their colleagues for confirmation.
The man smiled knowingly and asked them a question. "Can you think of a time when you felt a completely brand new emotion?" he began. "Perhaps the day you got married or the first time you held your baby, or when you became a trader or got your last promotion? Those types of moments when life feels magically perfect and your desire is to protect that situation and to make it last? The strength of your positive emotion is the intensity to which I was experiencing something negative. You haven't experienced anything that negative before. Most people don't go through such suffering."
He paused, then kept going. "Now imagine where I was four years ago, walking through Wandsworth Prison, or in a cell with a Polish kid who spoke no English, trying to understand how I got to that place in my life. How did I get here? What choices did I make? What's happening? How do I survive this? Will I survive? What's going to happen? I'm just trying to get you to feel something of what I felt, so nobody else has to go through what I went through."
The speaker was Kweku Adoboli, recently out of prison and one of a select category of criminal bankers instantly recognisable even to those who know little of the financial world. Dubbed the biggest rogue trader in British history, he was convicted in 2012 for losing $2.3bn of the Swiss bank UBS's money. His huge loss and nine-week trial captivated the City of London and his downfall, occurring as it did at the zenith of national repugnance towards bankers following the financial crisis, sparked an unusually hefty dose of schadenfreude at the fate of the well-educated, privileged young man who cost his bank billions.
As a trader in the investment bank's global synthetic equities division, Adoboli had booked fictitious hedging trades in order to hide the fact that he was exceeding his risk limits. This exposed the bank to much more chance of loss than it could see. He also created a sort of internal slush fund in which to store skimmed profits that he and others could later sprinkle back in to cover daily losses. He never denied the methods but maintained that everything he did was done in order to make UBS more money, and that the bank turned a blind eye for years while his scheme was helping it to rake in millions in profit.
In sentencing him, the judge told Adoboli his "fall from grace as a result of these convictions is spectacular". The prosecutor called him an "accomplished liar" who "played God" with UBS's money. His colleagues mostly denied knowledge of his actions.
UBS declined to comment for this article. Adoboli is still widely resented by management and his former colleagues for the embarrassment and money he cost the bank. The CFO testified that more than 500 jobs were lost and the bonus pool in its investment bank slashed by about 60 per cent, partly because of the loss. About 10 people lost their jobs directly because of it. None of the people who he worked with when it happened has been in touch. A manager in the compliance department once told me that UBS is still "obsessed" with Adoboli and the havoc that was wreaked.
This is the first interview Adoboli has given since leaving prison. He maintained his silence during the trial but when his email address came up in court, I got in contact. Four days later he responded. "I'm doing my best to keep my head up but it's not easy," he wrote. Shortly after his conviction in November 2012, another email popped up in my inbox. It was from his girlfriend. "He would really like to write to you — would you mind sending me your address or sending it to him directly at The Verne prison." I sent him a Christmas card of Central Park in the snow. What followed was years of handwritten and typed letters, train journeys from London to visit him in prisons in Kent and West Sussex, and long conversations, emails and texts after his release.