Kweku Adoboli is the first to admit that he, as he puts it “f***ed up”.
The 38-year-old’s banking career ended explosively when he was convicted in 2011 of losing $2.3 billion of the bank UBS’s money and was dubbed the biggest rogue trader in British history.
The insults thrown at him during his trial still smart. They roll off his tongue: “adrenaline junkie, driven by money, massive show-off, gambler”. Overnight, he says, he became a pariah: “a figurehead for everything that was wrong in the City”.
But after serving half of a seven-year sentence he says he has had “a new lease of life”. He is trying to atone for his crimes by working to reform the City; speaking to more than 7,000 bankers, students and politicians about how to bring about what he calls “a radical change in culture”. He’s even given a talk with Tony Blair. Now he has another battle on his hands — to stay in the country.
The Government is trying to deport him to Ghana, where he was born, because he is not a British citizen. While he appeals their decision he has to report to the police station every fortnight. His MP, Hannah Bardell, has joined his campaign to stay in the country and has sent a request to the Home Secretary asking that he is not held. Adoboli argues that he has served his prison sentence and that deportation is “not meant to be a double punishment”.
Despite no longer working in the City, Adoboli is dressed in the uniform of an off-duty banker; a pristine white T-shirt, navy blazer and smart jeans.
He left Ghana aged four, when his father went to work for the United Nations in Jerusalem. At 12 he was sent to Ackworth, a Quaker boarding school in Yorkshire.
“Theresa May talked about global citizens being citizens of nowhere,” he says. “I am that global citizen, so I never stopped to think that my passport restricted my freedom. I broke down last week in tears thinking I could be in a detention centre: worse than prison. My godson, who I live with, would come home from his first day of school to me not being there. My godsons are three and five and call me My Kweku — they think everyone has a mum, a dad and a My Kweku because they’ve known me all their life.”
The deportation has caused division in his immediate family. “My father thinks if this country wants to deport me I should go back to Ghana. But he has to understand that he sent me here, I built an alternative surrogate family here. If I leave I’m allowing them to take away a massive part of my identity.”
His father sat through Adoboli’s trial and it brought them closer. “It was hard for me to watch him going through that. For the first time in my life he said he was proud of me because I told the truth and took responsibility.”
Going over what happened at UBS is painful, “like cutting out a little piece of my heart”, but he has now spoken about it countless times at workshops run by think tank the Forward Institute. “The conversations we’re having about it are deeply important. I’ve seen it all, from running a $5 billion book to being cast out in prison — you see how society works and how you need to make it better.”
He’s crowdfunding his appeal and if it’s overturned and he no longer needs the money he is planning to donate it to others in need of legal aid, especially those from the Windrush Generation who are at risk of deportation.
“At the trial my father told me he was proud of me for the first time in my life, because I told the truth”
What Adoboli did was illegal. In his job as a trader he was booking non-existent trades as hedges to hide that risk limits had been exceeded. Eventually the money lost was too much to hide. He sent an email to colleagues, signing off: “I take responsibility for my actions and the s*** storm that will now ensue. I am deeply sorry to have left this mess for everyone and to have put my bank and my colleagues at risk.”
He plead not guilty, he says, “to get disclosure on everything that happened so I could contribute to learning and cultural change”.
Adoboli says that he didn’t want to go into banking. He studied computer science and management at Nottingham University and did an internship at UBS because he couldn’t get one in consulting. “What’s ridiculous is by the end of my 10-week internship at UBS in 2012 I had become part of the culture. I was told that our values matched. When they offered me a job I was proud and thought they had embraced me.”
Aged 27 he was promoted to run a $50 billion portfolio. “It was me and my supervisor John [Hughes], who was 25, running the biggest book in the bank. We had 30 months of experience between us. That’s like two kids running the economy of Ghana. I had imposter syndrome every day.”
Hughes was dismissed for gross misconduct weeks after Adoboli’s arrest but not charged with anything.
Adoboli continues: “We were trying to rebuild after the financial crisis and regain some independence after being bailed out by the Swiss taxpayer, but to do that we had to take risks — we didn’t know another way to create profit. There had been swathes of redundancies and people had fear they can’t deliver — so you don’t talk about failure, Bankers were being bashed from outside, which affected us.”
Rogue trading was a way “to run the book in this stressed environment”. “It protected you from making short- term decisions and bought time.”
Was he driven by money? “No. Yuval Noah Harari talks about this — we tell stories to control society. The narrative about me is I’m an adrenaline junkie driven by money. That’s the opposite of who I am. I went to a Quaker school with the motto ‘Not for himself but for all’. Colleagues said: ‘Kwek, you’ve got it wrong, this game is not about the community it’s about how much profit you can make as quick as possible with as little effort’.”
By the time he was convicted he had decided to leave trading. “My partner then, a doctor, had said I needed to choose between the job and her. I was desperate to make it work so committed to leaving the bank. She had said I was doing well so why wasn’t I happy?
“I’d ask my bosses, ‘What’s our purpose?’ You get the stock line about trickle-down economics or moving assets to where they are in demand to lubricate globalisation.”
He quotes academic theories of “resource depletion”, when a person works in a high-pressure environment and feels that they identify with the values of an institution. “When there is a bifurcation between your values and the institution you feel inauthentic but instead of dealing with it and seeing your family and friends you withdraw into the institution.”
His partner gave him an ultimatum — it was the job or her. “I was desperate to make it work with her. Then the loss happened and three months later I’m in prison.” He sighs.
It’s becoming less emotionally gruelling to return to the area of Shoreditch where he worked: “Back then, how near I was to work was more important than where I lived.”
What he wants is a shift in banking culture so no one has to go through what he has. “Our most brilliant people are working in finance; we need to get those people thinking about how to solve problems rather than how do we generate tons of profit. The financial industry needs to change its purpose and fix social global problems like migration, water shortages and climate change through investments they make.” He speaks to young people, “who want to change the world, like I once did” and says their “idealism is valuable to companies”. “We need to give them the tools to protect themselves.”
It’s taken a long time and a lot of therapy to reach this reflective point. When he arrived at Verne Prison in Dorset he was a minor celebrity. “People were like: ‘Mate, it’s the billion-dollar banker’.” He says it in a laddish voice. “I kept myself to myself at first. I was bullied by security — they searched my cell every Friday for four weeks in a row — no one gets that. They turn it upside down, pull apart your legal paperwork. Washing-up liquid was squirted everywhere, oats thrown around.” Eventually he made friends, working as a listener for the Samaritans and becoming chair of the prison council. Prisoners fondly called him “uncle”.
Adoboli’s been following debates around prison privatisation. “There shouldn’t be private prisons because prison is a social tool for protecting and rehabilitation — it shouldn’t be linked to profit. I was in prison in Ukip land, and at the prison council decisions were political. You have to invest in rehabilitation like in Scandinavia if you want to reduce crime so when prisoners come out they have a life to build — that’s a reason not to re-offend.”
He survived prison because of his friends. “Ro and Pip, friends from uni who I live with now, were amazing. When I broke up with my partner two-and-a-half years into my sentence I was smoking non-stop, not sleeping, drinking too much coffee. I spoke to Ro on the phone and he came down from Scotland to check up on me.”
Ro picked Adoboli up when he was released and drove him to Scotland. On the way, Ro stopped. “He said: ‘I want you to repeat, “I am not a criminal”. Say it until you believe it. You made mistakes but that doesn’t define who you are’.”
Adoboli doesn’t miss his old life. “Despite the Home Office and the constant sword of Damocles hanging over us, my life today is rich and happy. I don’t miss making tons of profit for the bank, but not being able to live.”
He has a new girlfriend and beams at the mention of her. “Telling someone what happened is always difficult — it’s complex but also there’s stigma, worrying about meeting their parents and explaining that the caricature in the press isn’t the real me.”
What would he do if he had children who wanted to be bankers? “I’d say: ‘You need to choose an institution with values that match yours and is trying to meet the social contract’.