In 2009, shortly after the global markets had suffered their worst crisis for 90 years, Alexis Stenfors was working as a currency trader for Merrill Lynch in London. With 15 years’ experience, he was good at his job and he prided himself on his ability to read the markets. His view was that the whole financial system was going to go “belly up”. That was what he was betting on.
And boy did he bet. He took increasingly extreme positions and when they failed to return dividends, he covered up losses in his trading books that he estimated to be around $100m (£78m). Then he went on holiday to India. Stenfors didn’t realise it at the time, but it was the end of his career as a trader, and the beginning of his notoriety as a rogue trader. Merrill Lynch later announced that his actions had resulted in the loss of $456m (£356m).
He lost his job, the media left his reputation in tatters and he was banned from the City for five years. Now he has written Barometer of Fear, a book about his experiences. Or rather, he has written a book that touches on his experience, but is rather more concerned with institutional wrongdoing, such as the Libor scandal. It’s a strange confession-cum-critique in which the author still seems unable to explain his own role.
One chapter, quoting the question that has often been put to him, is titled: “Why did you do it?” At the end of it, having not said much about his motivations, he writes that, despite seeing a psychiatrist for two years: “I am not sure if I have come any closer to a definitive answer to the question.”
When discussing banking flaws he can be authoritative, but about himself he appears detached, incurious, even alienated. Yet the man I meet at SOAS, University of London, is far more open than his prose.