Thursday, October 7, 2010

Do they know what's going on ?

Remember Jerome Kerviel - the trader who almost brought down Societe Generale ? The French banking giant ? He was convicted by a French court this week, sentenced to jail and ordered to pay back the € 4.9 bn loss the bank suffered as a fine - largely symbolic as he would just become bankrupt.

No doubt at all that he was guilty. He had built an open position of some € 50 bn. He violated trading policies of the bank. His actions almost brought the bank to its knees. He was guilty; and he's been found so in court.

But what is amazing about the judgment is that it completely exonerated Societe Generale. They have been found to be not guilty at all. That completely gobsmacks me.

The bank admits lax controls, but said it did not know. You want to believe that the bank did not know that the guy was taking an open position of € 50bn ? Really ?? Of course they must have known. They just turned a blind eye as long as he was raking in the money. When the retreating tide revealed who was naked, they suddenly have lost the power of eyesight.

Correction. Maybe they did not know. And that's the frightening bit about it all. Financial products are created of mind boggling complexity. Competitive advantage of traders are counted in the nano seconds by which one computer is faster than another. The field is dominated by twenty something whiz kids with the brains of a rocket scientist. Even they may not fully understand what they are creating. And who sits on top of such geeks. Forty something, or even older, dinosaurs (like me ! although I am not sitting on top of anybody) who are too proud to admit that they don't have a clue of what's going on.

So maybe Societe Generale was being very truthful in saying that it did not know. This is probably true of every bank or financial house that's doing such stuff. And that's the really scary bit about this whole case.