A Sociological Analysis of the Rogue Trader

The Wall Street Journal has a very perceptive article about the class nature of Jerome Kerviel, a striving person from a modest background, who was trying to compete with and win approval from his more fortunate colleagues.  Kerviel’s story is obviously self-serving, but much of it rings true — especially his ill-fated efforts to be accepted.Gauthier-Villars, David and Stacy Meichtry. 2008. “Kerviel Felt Out of His League.” Wall Street Journal (31 January): p. C 1.


“In 2005, Jérôme Kerviel got the biggest break of his career: a promotion out of Société Générale SA’s lowly back office — a place so uncool it was dubbed “the mine” — and into a coveted job as a trader at the powerful bank.  But if clawing your way up from the mailroom wins you a badge of honor in the U.S., not so within in the rigid class system that defines the upper ranks of French finance. Mr. Kerviel’s effort to impress his colleagues now appears to be a motivating factor behind his disastrous trading spree, which burned a $7.3 billion hole in Société Générale’s books.”

“”I was held in lower regard than the others because of my educational and professional background.” Mr. Kerviel told prosecutors over the weekend. His comments were from a transcript and confirmed by prosecutors and his lawyer.  Trading might not be rocket science, but Société Générale has a tradition of drawing its star traders from France’s most elite schools.  Many have doctorates in disciplines such as astrophysics or nuclear science ….  The bank’s top brass, including investment-banking head Jean-Pierre Mustier, is from the engineering school Polytechnique, the M.I.T. of France.  Chief Executive Daniel Bouton graduated from the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration, a school known for churning out high-level government functionaries that run the country.  “If you graduated from ENA or Polytechnique, you have an absolute tenure; if not, you miss out on all the good job opportunities,” according to a former Société Générale executive. “This rift exists all over the bank.”

“The high-pressure atmosphere has taken its share of victims. In June, a trader in his 30s who worked on the same floor as Mr. Kerviel jumped to his death from a footbridge near Société Générale’s towering headquarters in the La Défense suburb of Paris.  Moments before his death, Mr. Marchet says, a supervisor had interrogated the trader for losing about €9 million in unauthorized trades.  “He took his bag, left Société Générale and jumped off a bridge,” Mr. Marchet says.”…. that death came in the wake of two other suicides in recent years.  In 2005, a trader jumped to his death from a ninth-floor window at the bank’s headquarters, Mr. Marchet said. A year later, a back-office employee jumped in front of a train commuting between La Défense and the center of Paris.”

“The trading desk where Mr. Kerviel landed, the “Delta One” unit, deals with trades aimed at making small profits with stock-market fluctuations.  Mr. Kerviel, who hails from a small town in Brittany and graduated from a little-known university, suggested in his statement to prosecutors that he hoped to curry favor with people who counted.”

“At first, Mr. Kerviel’s strategy paid off — too well, in fact. His gains snowballed so quickly that, at some point, he had locked in a gain of €1.6 billion, about a third of the bank’s overall net profit in 2006.  At that moment, “I don’t know what to do,” Mr. Kerviel told investigators.  “I am happy, proud, but I don’t know how to justify my gains”.”


“What seemed to disappoint Mr. Kerviel was that his trading prowess wasn’t being acknowledged. He told prosecutors that he believes managers were aware of his methods but never spoke up as long as things were going well.  “I cannot believe that my superiors did not realize the amount I was risking,” he said in the interrogation. “It is impossible to generate such profit with small positions.  That’s what leads me to say that while I was [in the black], my supervisors closed their eyes on the methods I was using and the volumes I was trading.”


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