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Why Did French Bank's 'Rogue Trader' Do It?

AP
Friday, 25 Jan 2008 | 4:31 PM ET
Jerome Kerviel, Societe Generale bank trader accused of fraud.
(AP)
Jerome Kerviel, Societe Generale bank trader accused of fraud.

Little in Jerome Kerviel's background suggested he would become possibly the biggest rogue trader of all time. And the big question remains: What led him to orchestrate what France's second-largest bank describes as massive, fraudulent trades that cost it more than $7 billion?

A day after Societe Generale alleged that the 31-year-old had committed fraud "exceptional in its size and nature," many pieces of the puzzle were still missing. Family and acquaintances in his hometown described him as poised and trustworthy, recalling that he practiced judo as a teenager and helped teach it to children. The picture from neighbors was of a man who was unusually reserved and discreet.

There was no reply at a flat in the posh suburb of Paris where neighbors said he had lived. A note to reporters had been taped to a row of mail boxes in the entrance hall of the modest four-story building. One mail box still bore Kerviel's name.

"Don't search here. He has been seeking refuge elsewhere probably for some time now," said the handwritten note.

In the Brittany town of Pont l'Abbe where Kerviel grew up, his former judo teacher remembered him as a serious, helpful teenager.

"He came in to train two or three times a week, and he also helped out with classes for kids," said Philippe Orhant, who has not seen his former student in about 10 years. "I liked him a lot, and I had total confidence in him."

Kerviel's family said he was unmarried. His father died two years ago, said an aunt, Raymonde Kerviel. Three union officials at the bank said managers told them Kerviel had suffered from recent family problems that appeared to have deeply affected him.

"Jerome has done nothing wrong," she said. "He was a reserved, serious child. He didn't pocket a cent, I'm sure of it."

Bank officials also said Kerviel appears to have netted no personal financial gain from the alleged schemes.

The town's mayor described Kerviel as a "poised, calm, thoughtful young man." Kerviel had supported Mayor Thierry Mavic's election campaign in 2001.

"I'm bowled over," Mavic told a local newspaper, Le Telegramme. The mayor said Kerviel's father had worked as a teacher and that his mother ran a hair salon.

In the Paris suburb of Neuilly, the apartment building where neighbors said he had lived was surprisingly modest for a trader on the glamorous futures trading desk of the award-winning bank. Societe Generale said Kerviel was involved in "plain vanilla" trading -- the more basic forms -- and had "limited authority." He took home a relatively modest salary and bonus of less than 100,000 euros ($145,700).

He lived in a former maid's chambers converted into studios on the top floor of the walk-up, said Collette Thomas, 79, who has lived in the building for 30 years and whose apartment is one floor down from Kerviel's.

"He was very young, handsome, a beautiful one ... but he was not at all talkative," she said. "He didn't talk, he petted my dog, whom he adored."

Her daughter, Isabelle, a nurse, said she would see him about once a week. "But he didn't talk, he climbed the stairs four at a time and disappeared," she said.

Both said he never smiled, but held the door for them.

'Physically Seductive,' Woman Says

"He apparently leaves very early in the morning and comes home very late at night," said Jacqueline Cuny, another neighbor who said she had lived in the building for 40 years and that Kerviel had been there for "about three or four," although she had never met him during that time.

It was unclear how recently Kerviel had lived there. The note on the mail boxes said his apartment had been sublet. Genevieve Morand, 91, another neighbor in the building, said she saw him once in the last 10 days and he was carrying two briefcases.

Anne Gillier, who works in a nearby real estate agency, said she had regularly seen Kerviel in the neighborhood -- although not for the past one or two months -- and that he stood out.

"He was physically seductive, always elegantly dressed. But he was always alone," she said. "I never saw him with a woman, or even with another man, I always saw him alone."

No one answered what was believed to be Kerviel's mobile telephone number. "Hello, you have reached Jerome's mobile, I'm not available at the moment," said an even and steady man's voice in the recorded message.

Employed by Societe General since 2000, Kerviel worked his way up from a supporting role in an office that monitors trades to a job on the futures desk where he invested the bank's money by hedging on European equity market indices. That means he made bets on how the markets would perform at a future date.

Going beyond his role, Kerviel took "massive fraudulent directional positions" in various futures contracts, the bank said, betting at the start of this year that markets would rise. The bank says his actions cost it 4.9 billion euros ($7.18 billion). It has not explained his motivations and said the transactions didn't earn him any money. Executives said he seemed to be irrational.

"When we interviewed him during the night Saturday and Sunday, he imagined that he had discovered methods able to win money on the markets," said Jean-Pierre Mustier, chief executive of the bank's corporate and investment banking arm, on Thursday.

Using his knowledge of Societe Generale's control systems, gleaned in his former monitoring role, he escaped detection. Most of his positions went unnoticed by colleagues and superiors as Kerviel covered his tracks with what the bank described as a "scheme of elaborate fictitious transactions."

He got caught when markets dropped, exposing him in contracts where he had bet on a rise.

Kerviel, described as a "brilliant" student by one of his former university teachers, both shocked and impressed executives with the complexity and scale of his trades. The bank's CEO called the fraud "extraordinarily sophisticated."