Jérôme Kerviel, the man behind France’s biggest rogue-trading scandal, finds out this week whether he is heading to prison or walking free after his last court appeal in a four-year battle against former employer Société Générale SA.
The former trader submitted a final appeal in June to be acquitted and avoid a three-year jail sentence handed down in 2010 for his role in taking huge, risky bets that cost SocGen €4.9-billion ($6.35-billion) to unwind and slammed the French bank’s reputation.
Wednesday’s verdict, barring unexpected legal challenges, will be the final say on a case during which Mr. Kerviel, who has kept an impassive front throughout, built a cult following.
While Mr. Kerviel has never denied masking the €50-billion positions that made headlines around the world as the financial crisis unfolded in early 2008, he has always said his bosses knew what he was doing – which SocGen denies.
The outcome will be closely watched by a financial industry facing other lawsuits over crisis-era behaviour. A similar trial is unfolding in London over the role of trader Kweku Adoboli in a $2.3-billion loss at UBS AG.
“These appear to be spectacular cases by virtue of the size of the risks taken by these traders and the danger that they put their banks in,” said Emmanuel Moyne, a litigation lawyer at Linklaters in Paris.
“But if you compare it to cases where the amounts involved were much smaller, it is no different to people who simply cheated an internal controls system.”
SocGen, which denies any responsibility for the trades, hopes it will once again be cleared in a saga that has dogged employees and chief executive officer Frédéric Oudéa since he took over from Daniel Bouton in 2009.
A ruling of responsibility or liability on SocGen’s part would probably mean the bank would have to repay €1.7-billion in tax writeoffs relating to the losses. It would also likely get Mr. Kerviel off the hook regarding the full, court-ordered repayment of the €4.9-billion lost.
Former CEO Mr. Bouton testified both this year and in 2010, calling Mr. Kerviel a “great deceiver” and saying that the bank’s risk managers and back-office staff never stood a chance against the trader’s manipulations.
Meanwhile, Mr. Kerviel and lawyer David Koubbi have stuck to Mr. Kerviel’s strategy – which lost him the case in 2010 – of insisting that all blame should be lain at SocGen’s door.
With the appeal having uncovered no “smoking gun” against SocGen, it is unlikely that the 35-year-old former trader will win acquittal, lawyers say. The prosecution has called for Mr. Kerviel to serve five years in jail.
“The appeals process did not really change the presentation of the facts. … I don’t see the judge completely overturning the first conviction,” said Hubert de Vauplane, a partner at Kramer Levin.
If Mr. Kerviel is put behind bars, the verdict will send a strong signal to the financial community – albeit four years after the bets themselves were uncovered.
Rather than prompting banks to tighten their risk controls systems, Mr. Kerviel’s jail time is more likely to act simply as a deterrent to employees and management in the financial sector.
“The heavier the sentences, the more likely it is that traders will take them into account,” said Mr. de Vauplane. “A final prison sentence would set an example.”
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