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French bank blames trader for $7 billion fraud

A French bank said Thursday it has uncovered a $7.14 billion fraud — one of history’s biggest — by a single futures trader whose scheme of fictitious transactions was discovered.
/ Source: The Associated Press

French bank Societe Generale said Thursday it has uncovered a $7.14 billion fraud — one of history’s biggest — by a single futures trader whose scheme of fictitious transactions was discovered as stock markets began to stumble in recent days.

CEO Daniel Bouton said the trader’s motivations were “irrational,” netting the trader no personal financial gains. Still, the bank is seeking to have him prosecuted in court.

A person familiar with the case named the trader as Jerome Kerviel. Bank officials said the trader was a Frenchman in his 30s who probably acted alone. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

The bombshell destabilized a major bank already exposed to the subprime crisis. France’s second-largest bank by market value said it would be forced to seek euro5.5 billion (US$8.02 billion) in new capital.

Societe Generale filed a complaint Thursday with a court in Nanterre, west of Paris, accusing the trader of fraudulent falsification of banking records, use of such records and computer fraud, the bank said in a statement.

The Paris prosecutor opened a preliminary investigation Thursday based on a complaint filed by a small shareholder concerned about losses incurred because of the fraud, a judicial official said. The Bank of France, the country’s central bank, said it was immediately informed of the fraud and was investigating.

Societe Generale’s shares, which have lost nearly half their value over the past six months, were suspended in Paris on Thursday morning, then dropped 5.5 percent to $108.97 when they resumed trading.

The bank said it detected the fraud — comparable to a full year of its profits in stable times — at its French markets division the weekend of Jan. 19-20.

Once uncovered, Bouton said the bank alerted market regulators and moved immediately to close the trader’s positions, incurring heavy losses amid sharp declines on world markets.

“This is a bad time for banks and the industry in general. But detecting the fraud over the weekend was problematic because world stock markets on Monday and Tuesday fell hugely around the world. When the positions had to be unwound, the bank did that in a terrible market of falling equities,” said Janine Dow, senior director at Fitch Ratings financial institution group in Paris

“In hindsight, it was this guy’s superior knowledge of the control system of every aspect of trading at the bank that allowed him to build up fraudulent positions and hide them,” she said.

The bank said the trader had misled investors in 2007 and 2008 through a “scheme of elaborate fictitious transactions.” The trader, who was not named, used his knowledge of the group’s security systems to conceal his fraudulent positions, the statement said.

The man admitted to the fraud, the bank said, and was being dismissed. Four or five of his supervisors were to leave the group. Bouton offered to resign but the board rejected that.

The trader had worked for the bank since 2000 and earned a salary and bonus of less than $145,700, executives said.

“I’m convinced he acted alone,” said Jean-Pierre Mustier, chief executive of the bank’s corporate and investment banking, who interviewed the trader when the fraud was uncovered.

The trader was responsible for basic futures hedging on European equity market indexes, the company said. That means he made bets on how the markets would perform at a future date.

Until last year, the trader had been betting that markets would fall, but then changed his position at the start of this year to bet they would rise, said Kinner Lakhani, an analyst at ABN Amro in London who specializes in Societe Generale shares, citing the bank’s management.

He said there had been “daily rumors” this week that something was afoot at Societe Generale. “The market was sniffing something,” he said.

Because the trader previously had worked in trading accounting offices, “he would have known how the risk management worked,” Lakhani added. In a conference call with analysts on Thursday, bank officials “talked about this guy bypassing systems and setting up false counter-trades.”

Societe Generale said the trader was involved in “plain vanilla” forms of hedging. Futures trading began with selling commodities like sugar or oil to be delivered at a future date, but has expanded enormously to many kinds of extremely complex financial instruments.

The fraud appeared to be the largest ever by a single trader. If confirmed, it would far outstrip the Nick Leeson trading scandal in 1995 that forced the collapse of British bank Barings. Leeson, the bank’s Singapore general manager of futures trading, lost 860 million pounds — then worth US$1.38 billion — on Asian futures markets, wiping out the bank’s cash reserves. The company had been in business for more than 230 years.

The fraud was not as big as the 1991 scandal that led to the demise of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Claims by depositors and creditors there exceeded US$10 billion at the time. International bank regulators seized BCCI, which had headquarters in Luxembourg, London and the Cayman Islands, acting on auditors’ reports that described huge losses from illegal loans to corporate insiders and from trading transactions.

Axel Pierron, senior analyst at Celent, an international financial research and consulting firm, was stunned that 13 years after the Barings collapse, something similar has happened.

“The situation reveals that banks, despite the implementation of sophisticated risk management solutions, are still under the threat that an employee with a good understanding of the risk management processes can getting round them to hide his losses,” he said.

At Societe Generale, the announcement came on the back of $2.99 billion in write-downs linked to subprime-related difficulties and the crisis in financial markets.

The bank is now planning a capital hike in the “following weeks” by selling shares in a rights offer underwritten by JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley.

The write-down and losses will lead the company to post a net profit of $874 million to $1.16 billion for all of 2007, the Paris-based bank said. Full-year results will be announced Feb. 21. In 2006.