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Cautionary Tales of Poor Risk Management 3: Société Générale

This post was originally published on jpfs.com

Jérôme Kerviel and Société Générale: From Prestigious Beginnings to Unprecedented Scandal

Before we delve into the saga of Jérôme Kerviel, it’s important to understand the institution he was part of – Société Générale. Founded in 1864, Société Générale is one of the oldest banks in France and boasts a storied history. Over the years, it has been a cornerstone of the French economy, weathering both world wars and the Great Depression. By the turn of the 21st century, it had transformed into a global banking giant with operations spread across 67 countries and an employee strength exceeding 147,000.

 

In the midst of this colossal institution, Jérôme Kerviel was a relatively obscure figure. Born in 1977 in Pont-l’Abbé, a small town in Brittany, France, Kerviel was the son of a blacksmith and a hairdresser. Without any connections to the world of finance, he carved a path for himself, gaining a master’s degree in finance from the University of Lyon.

 

Joining Société Générale in 2000 as a compliance officer, Kerviel displayed an innate understanding of the intricate world of finance, enabling him to rise quickly through the bank’s ranks. By 2005, he was a member of the Delta One products team, involved in arbitrage – a low-risk trading activity that seeks to profit from price discrepancies in different markets.

 

However, beneath this veneer of normalcy and success, Kerviel was about to embark on a dangerous path of risky trading. The ensuing events would shock Société Générale, shatter its reputation, and reverberate across the global banking sector.

Kerviel’s Unauthorized Trading: A Ticking Time Bomb

Between 2005 and 2008, Kerviel engaged in unauthorized trading activities that eventually led to losses totalling €4.9 billion, the largest trading loss in banking history. He manipulated the bank’s trading systems and created fake trades to cover his tracks. Despite the enormous risk and financial exposure involved, he managed to bypass Société Générale’s internal controls, exposing the bank and its shareholders to extreme financial danger.

 

One of the key strategies Kerviel used was known as “directional trades,” where he bet on the future direction of market indexes. However, these trades were not the low-risk arbitrage trades that his team was supposed to engage in. They were high-risk, speculative trades that held the potential for enormous losses.

 

Furthermore, Kerviel used his knowledge from his previous compliance role to skillfully bypass the bank’s risk detection systems. He created fictitious hedging trades and manipulated the timestamps on his trades to give the illusion that his activities were low-risk when, in fact, they were anything but.

The Shortcomings in Société Générale’s Risk Management

Société Générale’s risk management system was supposed to prevent such disasters. The bank, like any financial institution of its size and stature, had multiple layers of risk controls, including trading limits, regular audits, and compliance checks. However, Kerviel managed to exploit loopholes in these controls, allowing his risky trading to go undetected.

 

Furthermore, the bank’s internal culture appeared to prioritize profit over risk management. Reports suggest that Kerviel’s superiors turned a blind eye to his trades as long as they were profitable. This lack of oversight and checks and balances brought about by greed allowed Kerviel’s rogue trading activities to go on unchecked for a significant amount of time.

 

The Kerviel case serves as a potent reminder of the disastrous consequences of weak risk management. Even with sophisticated risk detection systems, the oversight and control of risky trading activities are only as strong as the culture of the institution and the vigilance of its supervisors. Société Générale’s prioritization of profit over prudence resulted in the largest loss in the history of world banking.

The Role of Risk Management in Société Générale’s Losses

At the core of Société Générale’s monumental losses from Kerviel’s unauthorized trading activities was a systematic failure in risk management. Despite the presence of risk control systems, the bank was unable to prevent a trading fiasco that ended up costing billions.

 

The bank’s risk management strategy, heavily reliant on automated systems, fell short in identifying the gravity of Kerviel’s hazardous trades. Kerviel, leveraging his in-depth knowledge of the system from his time in compliance, managed to manipulate it, cleverly disguising his perilous bets as hedged, safer transactions.

 

Critically, there was a lapse in human oversight and an unhealthy attitude towards risk at the higher echelons of the bank. There was a tendency to prioritize profit generation over safe trading practices, leading to negligence and complacency when it came to enforcing risk control measures. This flawed approach to risk allowed Kerviel’s dangerously speculative activities to persist without triggering alarm bells.

Consequences of Neglecting Risk Management

The Kerviel saga is a stark example of the catastrophic consequences that can ensue when risk management is sidelined in the pursuit of profit. Société Générale’s severe losses were the direct outcome of its failure to enforce stringent risk controls and a prevailing culture that deprioritized risk.

 

In the scandal’s aftermath, Société Générale was forced to raise a staggering €5.5 billion in new capital just to cover the losses stemming from Kerviel’s rogue trades. The bank’s standing in the financial world took a massive hit, with its stock price nosediving and its reputation tarnished. The episode served as a chilling reminder of the havoc a single trader can wreak if allowed to engage in unsafe, risky trades unchecked.

 

Ultimately, this episode underscores the essential role of risk management in trading. It is not a secondary concern but a fundamental requirement that must be maintained and upgraded continuously. Société Générale’s experience is a sobering reminder that neglecting risk management can lead to disastrous outcomes, emphasizing the need for traders and financial institutions to remain ever-vigilant and prioritize safety over short-term profit.

Lessons from The case of Jérôme Kerviel and Société Générale

The case of Jérôme Kerviel and Société Générale provides an indelible reminder of the importance of risk management in trading. When risk management fails or is sidelined, the consequences can be financially catastrophic and reputational damaging. Société Générale’s experience underscores that no potential profit, however promising, is worth taking if the associated risks are not fully understood and appropriately mitigated.

 

At bMAMS, we firmly believe in this philosophy. Our commitment to robust and continuous risk management isn’t just a corporate mantra – it’s our lifeline. We understand that the financial landscape is fraught with complexities and uncertainties. As such, we prioritize safety over short-term gains, always placing the security of our clients’ investments at the forefront of our operations.

 

Every trading decision we make is guided by a meticulous risk-benefit analysis. We’re well-versed in the lessons of the past and take great care not to repeat them. While we strive to provide our clients with substantial returns, we do not do so at the expense of prudent risk management.

 

We consider it our duty to ensure our clients’ funds are safeguarded from extreme market volatility and unpredictable events. Risk management is not just a function for us; it is our responsibility, our priority, and our promise to you. By balancing potential profits with a comprehensive understanding and mitigation of risks, we remain dedicated to protecting your investment while helping it grow in a sustainable, responsible way.

Originally posted on the BMAMS website

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