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French trader ordered to repay nearly $7 billion

Societe Generale bank, Jerome Kerviel's ex-employer, says he traded recklessly and secretly before the global financial crisis ended his profit streak. Kerviel says the bank encouraged the practice.

October 06, 2010|By Devorah Lauter, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Paris — He's a $6-billion man. More precisely, a 4,915,610,154-euro man — about $6.8 billion and change.

A French court Tuesday sentenced Jerome Kerviel, Societe Generale's "rogue trader," to five years in prison, suspended two of the years, and slapped him with a monumental bill. It ordered him to pay back the amount the bank says he lost by recklessly trading with its money in late 2007 and early 2008.

One French news organization, RTL, calculated the restitution at one-ninth of the entire amount the French government pumped into banks to prevent them from collapsing in the global economic meltdown.

The bank is unlikely to recover the money from Kerviel. One of its lawyers, Jean Veil, said it probably wouldn't even ask for all of it. But the verdict represented "a sort of moral reparation," he said.

"It was very clearly demonstrated that the behavior of Jerome Kerviel, his lies, were so sophisticated that the bank couldn't have had an inkling of what he was doing," Veil said.

But to many in France, the 33-year-old Kerviel was simply an ambitious cog in a system guilty of making irresponsible investments and triggering the global crisis. Kerviel's supporters say the verdict protects an unfair system.

"This verdict serves the banks well," said Rene Coupa, head of the Jerome Kerviel Support Committee, who maintains that Kerviel's superiors must have known about his actions.

"Now they can just continue with their business as usual. It's the financial system that needed to be judged, but instead, it wasn't, and nothing will change," Coupa said. "You can count on our courts to protect the banks. So they had to give the maximum sentence to Kerviel."

Kerviel was charged with forgery, breach of trust and entering fraudulent data into computers. He is appealing the verdict.

He has argued that he was pressured to make high-stakes gambles with company funds as long as he was raking in huge profits for the bank, a claim the bank denies. When the subprime-lending bubble burst, Kerviel suddenly saw his winnings vanish.

Kerviel's lawyer, Olivier Metzner, said outside the Paris courtroom that his client was "revolted that those who created him are exonerated of all responsibility."

"It gives me the impression that Jerome Kerviel alone is paying for the system," Metzner, said.

The role of the banks in the economic crisis is a particularly sensitive issue here. The downturn has led to deeply unpopular cuts in social programs and higher taxes, and has spurred protests against austerity measures that have brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators into the streets of Europe.

Elie Cohen, an economist at the French CNRS research center and a professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, said French public opinion was hostile to banks.

"The public can't understand how banks can put pressure on state spending," he said, nor "why they have to bear with retirement reforms that will force them to work longer, since they are not responsible for the crisis."

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is pushing through a bill to change the legal retirement age from 60 to 62. A new strike to protest the reform is planned for Oct. 12.

Lauter is a special correspondent.

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