Blogger: Bob Blakley
Yesterday Societe Generale, the second-biggest bank in France, announced that it had suffered almost 5 billion Euros in losses due to the activities of one of the bank's derivatives traders.
Societe Generale apologized for the losses, and explained a three-day delay in announcing the fraud publicly by saying that bank officials needed time to unwind as many of the fraudulent positions as possible in order to limit the bank¹s losses.
Although Societe Generale did not identify the trader responsible for the fraud in their initial communications, he has subsequently been identified as one Jerome Kerviel.
Societe Generale's press release regarding the incident can be found here:
The details of the fraud are not yet completely clear, and uninformed speculation is not likely to be helpful. But the first paragraph of the bank¹s press release deserves comment.
Societe Generale begins by saying this: "Societe Generale Group (the "Group") has uncovered a fraud, exceptional in its size and nature: one trader, responsible for plain vanilla futures hedging on European equity market indices, had taken massive fraudulent directional positions in 2007 and 2008 beyond his limited authority."
Three things about this sentence are worrying. First, the fraud is described as "exceptional in size and nature". The good ones always are exceptional in size and nature. Common frauds aren¹t usually hard to prevent after you¹ve seen a lot of them; the reason you pay a risk manager is to prevent the exceptional frauds.
Second, the bank describes Kerviel¹s job as "plain vanilla futures hedging." The worry here is that the bank¹s risk managers think futures hedging risks not worth worrying about because they¹re just "plain vanilla."
The third worrying thing is the last clause: "one trader... had taken massive fraudulent directional positions... beyond his limited authority." Clearly his authority was NOT limited; the risk management and governance mechanisms of the bank apparently failed to prevent Kerviel from exceeding his authority, and they also apparently failed to detect his actions in time to limit the damage.
Societe Generale goes on to say this in the last half of the first paragraph: "Aided by his in-depth knowledge of the control procedures, resulting from his former employment in the middle-office, he managed to conceal these positions through a scheme of elaborate fictitious transactions."
The governance and risk management lessons are the two usual ones:
1. The fox is a dangerous guard for the henhouse. It may be safe to move traders into the design of risk-management systems; it is probably not a great idea to move the risk management personnel onto the trading desk.
2. The most dangerous assumption in the security business is the assumption that there are good guys. The risk management system MUST be designed to be secure even against attacks by insiders who have developed and operated it.
The only way to design a system to be secure against these insider attacks is to have strong attestation, transaction tracking, dual control, and supervision features - in other words, to ensure that activities are carried out in public and reviewed in a timely way.
Societe Generale appears to acknowledge these lessons later in the press release, when the bank notes that "The individuals in charge of his [Kerviel's - ed.] supervision will leave the Group." Firing Kerviel's bosses will not fix the problem; only improving the bank¹s governance will prevent future frauds.