James Moore: Step forward Jerome Kerviel, court jester of casino capitalism
Wednesday 06 October 2010
Outlook Jérôme Kerviel seems to have become a sort of white-collar Raoul Moat. Like the latter, the French rogue trader has been all but lionised for a series of frankly contemptible acts. Now it's true that unlike the execrable Moat, Kerviel didn't kill anyone. No, he just burnt his way through a staggering €5bn of other people's money, almost bringing down Société Générale and everyone who sailed within her.
And yet, as with Moat, for some people this is enough for him to be turned into a hero. Since his crimes – and yesterday a French court confirmed that they were indeed crimes – came to light, he has published an autobiography,T-shirts bearing his image have been printed, and he has even been likened to Robin Hood – even though he didn't actually give anything to the poor (and doesn't appear to have been trying to steal). His real motivations remain something of a mystery.
Good for the French authorities, then, who saw through his claims that he was "only following orders" and was nothing more than a patsy. While an appeal is pending, Kerviel is facing three years in jail and an order (largely symbolic) to pay back what he lost as a result of his unauthorised trading.
Not so good for the managers who appear to feel that they've been vindicated by the judges' verdict that Kerviel was acting alone. Kerviel may have been acting alone, but the fact that he was able to build up €50bn in positions as a relatively junior employee doesn't say much for the quality of the people overseeing his activities. Or for the bank's culture.
SocGen has, of course, admitted failings in its controls (and was fined €4m for its trouble). But its lawyer has depicted Kerviel as a hyper-intelligent super-fraudster, whose nefarious activities could not possibly have been picked up (until they were). Which is just a little hard to accept.
The reason Kerviel has been lionised in France is because of the way he has depicted himself as some sort of crusader, an enemy and victim of a greedy, corrupt, and self-serving banking elite. In fact, while coining it in as a trader, he was very much a part of it.
He is only a victim in that, had he been working for a bank with less dozy risk monitors, he would have been picked up and fired before his losses got much above a few million. He might well have been able to rock up at another bank for a repeat performance after that, too. People sacked in this way tend to leave with acceptable references because banks don't like to admit they've made mistakes.
A couple of these cycles and he'd have made enough to retire comfortably to the Breton countryside whence he came. Like so many others who have made substantial – but notmaterial – losses at so many banks. People whose combined losses the rest of us have been paying for. Poor Jérôme. His bad luck is that he didn't get found out soon enough. No hero. Nor a prince of casino capitalism. More a court jester. With bad jokes.
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