This ex-trader owes €4.9bn, but whose sins is he paying for?
The little guy goes to jail, the banks get off scot-free. It sounds familiar, writes Aoife Drew
In these troubled times, many of us owe far more to the banks than we'd like or is fair. However, as with everything in life, no matter how bad things seem, there is always someone worse off than you.
Like, for example, Jerome Kerviel, ex-trader from French bank Societe Generale, who this week was ordered to pay back a whopping €4.9bn to the bank and spend three years in prison, in the most severe sentence ever handed down for trader fraud by a French court. The sentence is causing much controversy, because it fails to reflect both sides of the story.
Nearly €5bn. For Kerviel, who is currently paid €2,300 a month as a computer analyst, the verdict means it will take him 177,536 years to pay back this debt.
He can't count on his book sales either. With loyalties at €1.90, he would need to sell a mere 2.6 billion copies to make back the money.
Kerviel, 33, a softly spoken, debonair man from west Brittany, was found guilty of forgery, breach of trust and unauthorised computer use for covering up bets worth nearly €50bn between late 2007 and early 2008 (the bank's equity capital was estimated at only €30bn at the time).
The scale of this affair is so huge that it puts all other rogue traders in the shade. Nick Leeson of Barings bank lost a mere £1.1bn and John Rusnak, a broker from Allied Irish Bank, hid losses of just $691m. Chump change.
The ruling is considered by the French financial community as a huge victory for Societe Generale, which has worked to clean up its image and put in place tougher risk controls since the scandal broke in 2008.
Its spokeswoman, Caroline Guillaumin, called the verdict "an important ruling that acknowledges the moral and financial harm done to the bank and its staff".
Societe Generale had argued that Kerviel's actions endangered the solvency of one of Europe's top banks and "threatened the public order of the world's economy".
On the other hand, Kerviel says he is "crushed by the weight of the punishment". He says the court "wanted me to pay for everybody" because the bank "had to be saved".
In reality, Kerviel will not have to pay the entire amount back, but any profits or loyalties earned on the back of the affair (a film is currently in the pipeline) will have to be handed over to the bank, so he will certainly not make any money out of the scandal.
The worldwide media have focused on the enormous amount that Kerviel will have to repay. And yet, one of the most important elements of his sentence is the time he will have to spend in prison --three years. This is unheard of in France for this type of crime. Kerviel will appeal the judgement, but if this fails, he will almost certainly go to jail.
The harshness of this sentence has turned Kerviel into a scapegoat and a victim.
In a survey by the French newspaper Les Echos, 86 per cent thought the ruling was too severe. It makes the bank look totally innocent -- which it certainly is not.
An internal report commissioned by Societe Generale demonstrates that managers failed to follow up on no less than 74 different alarms about Kerviel's activities.
According to a French compliance officer who works in a top international bank in Paris: "It's impossible that Kerviel acted alone. The verdict implies that a lone trader can put a bank or world economy in jeopardy -- an idea which is entirely false."
That opinion is shared by the Financial Times, which said Kerviel had been enabled by "a corporate culture that allows traders to cover their tracks, even after they have bet the bank. So the jaw-dropping damages award is distracting. The real lesson is that banks need to be stringent in their compliance regimes."
Still, this verdict does not put any direct pressure on Societe Generale to change its modus operandi.
Media commentators in France have pointed out that the worlds of law and finance clearly don't understand each other, which has resulted in one man taking the blame for the corruption of an entire system.
Conversely, in Ireland, this lack of understanding between the two spheres has resulted in no one taking the blame at all. Is Sean FitzPatrick quaking in his boots in the wake of this ruling?
No, because it's exactly this miscomprehension that will work in his favour. Greed continues to be good.