Rogue French Trader Fined More Than He Could Ever Pay

Massive gambler and folk hero gets three years

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An odd drama that's been playing out in France is now coming to a close. The story involves one Jérôme Kerviel, a "rogue trader" at French Bank Société Générale, who managed to lose his employers about €4.9 billion in "rogue bets--the largest ever attributed to a single trader," notes The New York Times. On top of losing the company a fortune, the bets "exposed one of France’s most prestigious financial institutions to risk greater than its own market value and brought it precariously close to collapse." Kerviel, meanwhile, claimed that the bank knew what he was doing and looked the other way so long as his outrageous gambling was profitable. The trial earned him a sort of folk-hero status, but Kerviel is now being ordered to pay the entire €4.9 billion--a financial impossibility--on top of a minimum three-year prison sentence. Here are some of the reactions from both sides of the Atlantic.

  • 'Neither Société Générale Nor Justice Emerge as Winners,' declares Georges Ugeux, blogger at French publication Le Monde. While he thinks what Kerviel did was clearly wrong, and imprisonment clearly obligatory, he finds the €4.9 billion-penalty "astounding," given that Kerviel most certainly does not have that money. Clearly this is not a practical matter, then, of the bank wanting to "recouperate" some of its losses. Judges Ugeux: "this ruling is remarkably articulate, and deserves better than to be discredited by a penalty so large that it can never be applied. One should distrust false victories."
  • The Full Penalty Is Mandatory  Pascale Robert-Diard, another Le Monde blogger, defends the decision, pointing out that two of the lawyers say the bank should, in the case of a guilty verdict, "seek by way of revenge all money Jérôme Kerviel might make from this affair, particularly from the publication rights for his book and money that might come from an eventual film adaptation." Also, she argues, in the case of a full conviction, and a finding of "intentional wrondgoing, there can't be a splitting of responsibility [for the €4.9 billion lost]  between the offender and the victim. The reparation obligation is integral and the court doesn't have discretion regarding the sum."
  • Actually, It's 'Symbolic,' as the Bank Itself Admits  "The symbolism in question," explains New York Magazine's Nitasha Tiku, "[is] a giant arrow aimed at Kerveil's head that says: Don't look at us, it's this guy's fault." That said, Tiku's not endorsing the bizarre populist narrative in this trial, either. Kerviel is no Robin Hood: "instead of stealing from the rich to give to the poor, the rich maybe knew he was sort of stealing, but let him because they wanted to get richer."
  • This Whole Thing Is Ridiculous  "The real farce here, of course," writes Paul Murphy at FT's Alphaville blog, "is that SocGen executives can actually claim that this somehow vindicates their actions, or lack thereof. If you were running a bank where some junior trader could secretly wager 10 times the bank's market value, you shouldn’t be running a bank any more." That said, he also thinks the chief judge in the case "has made his court a laughing stock," as "no one actually expects Kerviel to come up with the cash."
  • Kerviel Didn't Lose the Bank That €4.9 Billion, protests The New York Times' Dealbook blog. " Kerviel, much maligned and much misunderstood, was in the black when his shadowy trades were discovered by Société Générale." It was, instead, "the bank's announcement that it would unwind those bets, and its botched execution," that "put the trader on the hook for $7 billion [or €4.9 billion] he did not actually lose."
  • But He's Enjoying the Attention  Back in May, the Financial Times' Vanessa Friedman noticed that Kerviel certainly seemed to be doing everything he could to play up the role the public had chosen for him. "After all, it was not perhaps the wisest move for a man contesting his depiction as the black sheep of one of France's largest banks (he claims his supervisors knew what he was doing) to choose, for a rare public outing, an all-black outfit. From the open-neck shirt to the dark suit (not to mention cigarette) the look was more hip Hollywood gangster than wronged young financier--or, as he claims, scapegoat." His lawyers could easily have advised him on image, going for a more innocent look. "By contrast," she noted at the time, "Mr Kerviel seems to be using style here to position himself as a sort of Dark Knight, exposing the underbelly of the system."
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