PARIS (AFP) — French banking giant Societe Generale said Thursday a single trader who fooled his bosses carried out a massive 4.9 billion euro (7.15 billion dollar) fraud -- one of the biggest in financial history.
Bank sources identified the trader as 31-year-old Jerome Kerviel, who had worked at Societe Generale in Paris since 2000 and had been on the trading desk since 2005. His whereabouts were unknown, although a member of his lawyer's office told AFP he was "not on the run."
Trading in the bank's shares was temporarily suspended at the bank's request and stock closed 4.14 percent down on news of the fraud and a 2.05 billion euro loss in the US subprime mortgage market.
The bank said the losses cut its 2007 profit to 600-800 million euros from 5.2 billion euros in 2006 and that it needed a capital increase of 5.5 billion euros to restore its balance sheet.
The fraud is another blow to investor confidence in a global banking sector already suffering from multi-billion dollar writedowns at some of the biggest lenders in Britain and the United States.
The case dwarfs that of Nick Leeson, the original British "rogue trader" who lost 1.5 billion dollars at Barings, causing the failure of the venerable British bank in 1995. Leeson commented Thursday that the international banking system "is as vulnerable as it was in my day."
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon -- speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos -- said the fraud was "a serious matter but at the same time, it has nothing to do with the current situation on the global financial markets."
Societe Generale chief executive and chairman Daniel Bouton said the trader had used "extremely sophisticated and varied techniques" to carry out the fraud and that he "had the intelligence to escape all control procedures."
The bank, which insisted he had acted alone, said he took out "massive fraudulent directional positions in 2007 and 2008 beyond his limited authority."
Experts however had trouble accepting that Kerviel could have acted alone to cover up failed stock futures trading over a period of more than a year.
"The feeling in the dealing rooms is that it is not possible for an individual to do all that. They think Societe Generale has overdone the fraud to cover up some bad market operations," said Eli Cohen, an economy professor and research director for the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).
"It seems a bit too much for such a loss to be hidden for a whole year," Cohen told AFP.
"One person alone cannot trigger such a catastrophe," commented Arnaud Riverain from the private firm Arkeon Finance. The bank's trading desk must have suffered from some "dysfunction", he said.
Marc Touati, an economist with Global Equities, said "everyone who works in banks knows that when losses reach a certain level, positions are closed. Losses could reach 100-200 million euros, but five billion, that's impossible."
Touati said that if the bank is telling the truth "there is a risk control problem, and this could put Societe Generale into disrepute, especially as its comparative advantage is to be the market champion."
Kerviel, who earned less than 100,000 euros per year, allegedly built up the huge losses dealing in derivatives tradings.
"The transactions which involved the fraud were simple -- taking a position on shares rising -- but hidden using extremely sophisticated and varied techniques," said Bouton in a statement.
He said the trader had been suspended after confessing to the fraud and that legal action would be taken against him.
Asked about his whereabouts, Bouton responded: "I don't know where he is."
One of France's three biggest banks, Societe Generale filed a court complaint against the trader, accusing him of falsifying bank documents, using falsified bank documents and unauthorized computer access.
And as the Paris prosecutor's office opened a preliminary investigation into the scandal, scores of shareholders lodged suit against the bank for fraud and misconduct.
The bank has already announced it was firing executives "responsible for the supervision and controls on the operations concerned."
Bouton, whose offer to resign was rejected, said both he and his deputy Philippe Citerne would forego their salaries for six months and their bonuses for 2007.
Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said she had asked the country's banking regulator to bring in tougher controls in response to the scandal.
Societe Generale said in a statement that the rogue trader had been carrying out what it called "vanilla futures hedging" on European equity markets -- industry jargon for the most basic kind of futures purchase.
It said he had an in-depth knowledge of the bank's control systems, and managed to cover his tracks "through a scheme of elaborate fictitious transactions."
These were discovered and investigated on January 19 and 20, it said.
A Societe Generale union source said it appeared that the trader had not acted for personal profit.
"The trader in question was experienced, knew how the bank worked. It seems he was playing the markets, but not for his own profit, and caused enormous losses," the source told AFP.
A human resources official described him as a "fragile" individual, "without particular genius" and facing family problems.
The scandal is only the latest of its kind to hit the international finance industry.
Three years after Nick Leeson caused the meltdown of Britain's Barings bank, Japanese trader Yasuo Hamanaka was jailed in 1998 for a decade of rogue trading which cost the Sumitomo Corporation of Japan 2.6 billion dollars.
In 2002 John Rusnak, a trader employed by Allied Irish Bank, was jailed for seven-and-a-half-years by a US court for losing the company 750 million dollars through unauthorised currency trading.
Societe Generale's stock has lost 20 percent of its value since the start of the year and 50 percent since last May.
The Fitch credit ratings agency lowered its ranking for Societe Generale debt to AA- from AA. Some analysts said the bank risked becoming a takeover target.
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