Massive bank fraud uncovered

Published: Friday, January 25, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 24, 2008 at 8:43 p.m.

PARIS - French bank Societe Generale said Thursday it has uncovered a 4.9 billion euro ($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 5.5 billion euro ($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 74.77 euros ($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. 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 100,000 euro ($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.

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.

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