NYTimes: A Spiral of Losses by a ‘Plain Vanilla’ Trader
PARIS — On the elite trading floors here, where France’s brightest minds devise some of the most complex instruments in global finance, few people noticed Jérôme Kerviel.
He was lucky to be there at all. Many of his colleagues had been plucked from the prestigious Grandes Ecoles — the Harvards and M.I.T.’s of France — and wielded advanced degrees in math or engineering. Mr. Kerviel arrived from business school and started out shuffling paper in the back office.
But on Thursday the world came to know Mr. Kerviel, 31, as the most dangerous accused rogue trader ever, a young gambler who found himself sucked into a spiral of losses that left a $7.2 billion hole in Société Générale, one of France’s largest and most respected banks.
While Société Générale executives maintained that he had acted alone, many questioned how that was possible given the scope of the losses.
“There are plenty of excellent brains at Société Générale, consequently I find it hard to believe the risk management systems and all the auditors did not indicate anything at any level,” said Hélyette Geman, a professor of mathematical finance at ESSEC, a leading French business school, as well as professor at the University of London.
It is a remarkable turn of events for Société Générale, which since the mid-1980s has built itself into a global powerhouse in trading derivatives like futures and options.
“In France we considered Société Générale a magic bank,” Ms. Geman said.
Until now Société Générale, unlike many Wall Street banks, had seemingly sailed through the turmoil in the financial markets with its reputation intact. The January issue of Risk, a monthly magazine about risk management and derivatives, named the bank its “Equity Derivatives House of the Year.”
But Mr. Kerviel, described by bank executives as a shy junior trader, did not fit the mold at Société Générale. The bank lures its top talent from the country’s premier science and engineering schools in Paris. Mr. Kerviel grew up in Brittany, in western France, and attended the University of Lyon. He joined Société Générale in 2000 as what was effectively a clerk, processing and recording the trades made on the trading floor.
By 2006, Mr. Kerviel had worked his way up to the trading floor, where he specialized in arbitrage, or making bets on small difference between various European stock market indexes such as the CAC in France and DAX in Germany.
A senior banker at Société Générale described Mr. Kerviel “as a very junior trader, not a star.” As far as his superiors knew, this banker said, “he was starting to work on a small portfolio. He’s more of a shy person than an extrovert.”
All the same, covering the billions in market positions would have taken considerable skill. “Hiding it was a full-time job because you needed to know exactly what do,” this banker said.
The chief executive of Société Générale’s corporate and investment banking unit, Jean-Pierre Mustier, insisted that the bank’s own investigation showed what they termed the rogue trader to have acted without the knowledge or cooperation of his superiors.
“We’ve been going through the positions for four days,” Mr. Mustier said. “The research we have made has not shown any link with anyone else at Société Générale.”
Mr. Kerviel’s bad bets in the markets came to light a week ago. According to bankers familiar with the situation who asked for anonymity because the investigation was continuing, risk control specialists at the bank first discovered the suspicious trades on Friday. After combing through trading records all day Saturday, the executives discovered the extent of the fraud.
Mr. Mustier returned to Paris from London to oversee the investigation at Société Générale’s headquarters over the weekend. Mr. Kerviel was summoned and was questioned there Saturday night.
Among financial veterans of other trading floors as well as financial experts across Europe on Thursday, there was widespread incredulity that a junior employee like Mr. Kerviel could have racked up such huge losses without the knowledge of his superiors.
Like Nick Leeson, the trader who brought down Barings bank by making huge secret bets on Asian markets in 1995, Mr. Kerviel was something of an anomaly on Société Générale’s trading floor.
“I had students who have a hard time getting jobs at top French banks because of this elite system we have in France,” said Ms. Geman. “In the U.K. and U.S., it’s less of a club based on where you went to school when you were 19 or 20.”
According to officials at the bank, Mr. Kerviel’s losses came from bets made on what they termed “plain vanilla products,” relatively simple futures tied to major European stock indexes.
He had made bullish bets, a senior banker said, which were gradually unwound over the first three trading days of this week. The banker insisted that the closing of those positions had not contributed to the huge losses on European bourses Monday and Tuesday.
Adding to the mystery is the conclusion by Société Générale executives that Mr. Kerviel had not profited from his trades.
“We have no explanation for why he took these positions, and we have no reason to believe he benefited from a financial point of view,” the banker said. “We don’t understand why he took such a massive position.”
The Journal has a bit more; looks like a bit of hacking + rogue trading. A new combination?
WSJ: ...Société Générale's computer systems are considered some of the most complex in banking for handling equity derivatives, that is, investment contracts whose value moves with the value of other assets. Officials of the bank believe Mr. Kerviel spent many hours of hacking to eliminate controls that would have blocked his super-sized bets. Changes he is said to have made enabled him to eliminate credit and trade-size controls, so the bank's risk managers couldn't see his giant trades on the direction of indexes.
Mr. Citerne said the bank didn't notice the unauthorized trading until last week because the trader had "intimate and malicious" knowledge of its procedures and knew at what dates checks were conducted. "Each time he took a position one way, he would enter a fictitious trade in the opposite direction to mask the real one," Mr. Citerne said. According to one person familiar with the situation, Mr. Kerviel used the computer log-in and passwords of colleagues both in the trading unit and the technology section.
According to one person familiar with events, the bank's controls did red-flag an outside trading partner of the bank, whose account showed unusually high finance levels. The client, when asked by the bank about the account's finances, denied knowing of it. Pursuing this matter ultimately led to Mr. Kerviel.
Executives called him in for questioning on Saturday, said Mr. Bouton. The interrogation took a good part of the day because Mr. Kerviel had convinced himself that he had mastered a new way to trade stock-index futures, according to a person familiar with the situation. For a while, he went in circles while justifying the trading strategy, this person said, but finally on Saturday night he broke down and admitted the trades.
Wikipedia has an entry on largest trading losses. I don't really think of John Meriwether of LTCM (or even, I guess, Brian Hunter) as a rogue trader, although I suppose their investors didn't know exactly what they were up to.
Name Amount Lost Citizenship Employer Source of Loss Year
Jérôme Kerviel US$7.1 billion France Société Générale European Index futures 2008
Brian Hunter US$6.5 billion Canada Amaranth Advisors Gas futures 2006
Giancarlo Paretti US$5.0 billion Italy Crédit Lyonnais Loans to Hollywood Studios 1990
John Meriwether US$4.6 billion United States Long Term Capital Management Interest Rate and Equity Derivatives 1998
Yasuo Hamanaka US$2.6 billion Japan Sumitomo Corporation Copper futures 1996
Wolfgang Flöttl, Helmut Elsner US$2.5 billion Austria BAWAG Currency- and interest swaps 2006
Robert Citron US$1.7 billion United States Orange County Interest Rate Derivatives 1994
Heinz Schimmelbusch US$1.6 billion Germany Metallgesellschaft Oil Futures 1993
Nick Leeson US$1.4 billion United Kingdom Barings Bank Nikkei Futures 1995