PARIS — The rogue futures trader who allegedly cost French bank Societe Generale $7.14 billion had been betting on an even larger scale — with tens of billions in fraudulent deals, the bank said Friday.
France’s No. 2 bank apologized to shareholders after discovering what appears to be the largest trading fraud in history to be carried out by a single person. The news Thursday rattled an already jittery banking sector at a time of global economic uncertainty.
A bank official said Friday that 31-year-old trader Jerome Kerviel’s positions had reached “several tens of billions of euros” — a staggering sum for a bank with a market capitalization of 35.9 billion euros ($52.6 billion). The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with bank policy.
French presidential aide Raymond Soubie said on LCI television that the trader had been dealing with more than 50 billion euros ($73.31 billion) — a figure greater than annual gross domestic product for entire nations such as Morocco, Bangledesh, Vietnam and Slovakia, according to 2006 IMF figures.
The bank said Kerviel appears to have netted no personal financial gain from the alleged schemes.
Paris prosecutors were conducting a preliminary investigation that combines two legal complaints, judicial officials said: one by Societe Generale accusing the trader of fraud, another by small shareholders in the bank demanding to know how the fraud transpired.
Societe Generale’s shares, which have lost nearly half their value over the past six months, were suspended on the Paris bourse Thursday morning. When trading resumed, shares fell 4.13 percent to close at 75.81 euros ($111.16). Friday afternoon, shares were trading up 2.4 percent at 77.66 euros ($113.87).
On Friday, UBS downgraded the bank to neutral from buy. Deutsche Bank also downgraded the stock, to hold from buy.
However, Dresdner Kleinwort analysts Milan Gudka and Arturo De Frias said the bank’s announcement “provides us with greater visibility and comfort. Despite our concern as to the adequacy of internal controls, we keep a positive recommendation on the stock.”
Undetected by the bank’s multilayered security systems, Kerviel had for over a year been fraudulently using the company’s funds to bet on European stock markets, Societe Generale said.
The bank said it learned of the fraud last weekend. With money markets in turmoil, Societe Generale was forced to sell the contracts built up by the rogue trader just as stocks were plunging. It took three days to unload them.
During a visit to India, President Nicolas Sarkozy said the bank’s problem “is an internal fraud that had consequences on Societe Generale’s results but, as the governor of the Bank of France says, has not affected the solidity and reliability of the French financial system.”
Sarkozy said he will announce new proposals at a Tuesday dinner in London with other European leaders on how to boost transparency in the financial sector and encourage the “moral improvement of financial capitalism.”
With questions swirling over how an individual could rack up $7.14 billion in losses for a company, the Bank of France governor insisted Friday the sum had “nothing to do with the subprime crisis, with the difficulties of the financial market in general.”
On RTL radio, Christian Noyer said the vast loss was just “chance.”
“If there hadn’t been a collapse in the markets early in the week, the size of the loss would have been much smaller,” he said.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon was among those who remained skeptical.
“It is difficult ... to imagine how one person alone could, in a relatively short period of time, cause such considerable losses,” Fillon said in Luxembourg.
He also said the French government should have been informed immediately, not of four days after the fraud was discovered.
Shareholders had many of the same questions.
“One should not be able to take positions worth 40 billion without being spotted by an audit or a sophisticated computer system, every one agrees on that,” said Didier Cornardeau, president of APPAC, a group representing small Societe General shareholders.
“We understand that there is an important disfunction in Societe General, and perhaps in other banks as well.”
Bank CEO Daniel Bouton took out newspaper ads Friday begging shareholders to accept his “apologies and deep regrets.”
It remains unclear whether Kerviel was acting out of malevolence, ambition or some other reason. Three union officials representing Societe Generale employees said managers at the bank who briefed them about the fraud told them Kerviel was having “family problems.”
Employed by Societe General since 2000, Kerviel worked his way up from a supporting role in an office that monitors trades to a job on the more glamorous futures desk where he invested the bank’s own money by hedging on European equity market indices. That means he made bets on how the markets would perform at a future date.
Thierry Mavic, mayor of the western French town of Pont-L’Abbe where Kerviel grew up, described him as “someone with his head on his shoulders, thoughtful, a young man with no issues,” in an interview with RTL.
Kerviel both shocked and impressed banking executives with the complexity and scale of his trades. Using his knowledge of Societe Generale’s control systems, gleaned in his former monitoring role, he escaped detection. Most of his positions went unnoticed by colleagues and superiors as Kerviel covered his tracks.
Kerviel’s deception recalls the massive fraud carried out by Nick Leeson, who in 1995 bankrupted British bank Barings. Barings collapsed after Leeson, the bank’s Singapore general manager of futures trading, lost 860 million pounds — then worth $1.38 billion — on Asian futures markets. The company had been in business for more than 230 years.
Though Societe Generale’s loss is greater than Barings’, Bouton insisted that the bank is still financially sound and said he was convinced of the continuing confidence of clients “and the bank’s ability to bounce back.”
The case has raised serious questions sector-wide about risk management.
“In a bull market often the risk management does not cope with the significant growth in volumes, volatility, complexity of instruments,” said Kinner Lakhani, an analyst at ABN Amro. “Pretty much every Wall Street management is definitely looking at this issue and trying to strengthen to make sure these things don’t happen again.
The company said it expects to post a net profit of 600 million euros to 800 million euros ($874 million to $1.16 billion) for all of 2007 — even after the fraud and another 2.05 billion euros ($2.99 billion) lost in the subprime mortgage crisis that has also roiled markets.
As a result, the bank said it would be forced to raise 5.5 billion euros ($8.02 billion) in new capital.
Founded in 1864 after a decree signed by Napoleon III, Societe Generale is now present in 77 countries and employs 120,000 people.
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