French 'rogue trader' Jerome Kerviel must pay 1 million euros to Societe Generale

French "rogue trader" Jerome Kerviel arrives for his appeal trial at Versailles courthouse, outside Paris, on Sept 23, 2016.
French "rogue trader" Jerome Kerviel arrives for his appeal trial at Versailles courthouse, outside Paris, on Sept 23, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

VERSAILLES (AFP) - A French appeals court on Friday (Sept 23) ordered “rogue trader” Jerome Kerviel to pay a million euros (S$1.5 million) to Societe Generale over the nearly five billion euros he squandered through his reckless risk-taking.

But the court in Versailles, outside Paris, laid the lion’s share of the blame for the 4.9 billion euro loss at the feet of the French banking giant, citing its “woefully inadequate” internal checks.

Kerviel, 39, was “partially responsible for the loss” that brought Societe Generale to the brink of bankruptcy in 2008, the court said.

But “regardless of (Kerviel’s) wiles and determination, or the sophistication of the procedures he used, such a loss could not have been incurred without the woefully inadequate oversight systems at Societe Generale,” the court said.

The deficiencies and “managerial choices... gave an ill-intentioned employee such as Jerome Kerviel a wide scope of action,” it added.

In a civil case, Kerviel was first ordered to repay the entirety of the enormous losses but that was quashed on appeal.

Despite Friday’s verdict that he must now pay a million euros, Kerviel said: “I still believe I owe nothing to Societe Generale.” He said the decision gave him the “energy to continue the struggle” and would go on fighting for a retrial.

His lawyer David Koubbi, while trumpeting that the Versailles court “wiped out 99.98 percent of the sum” hanging over his client, said he would oppose “any effort to recover” the one million euros.

Jean Veil, a lawyer for Societe Generale, had called the ruling “completely satisfactory”.

Koubbi said Friday’s decision would be “excellent fodder” for three lawsuits that are pending against the bank as well as the bid for a retrial.

The decision did not bear directly on a 2.2 billion euro tax break that the French state awarded to the bank in compensation for the losses – a protection that is available in fraud cases.

But the government said it would review Societe Generale’s tax situation in view of the ruling that the bank was overwhelmingly responsible.

Kerviel, who was convicted of breach of trust, forgery and entering false data for the trades, was sentenced to five years in prison, two of which were suspended.

In total he actually spent only 150 days in prison.

Kerviel has always maintained that his bosses turned a blind eye as long as the profits kept rolling in.

His colleagues said he was generally well thought of by his bosses, but Societe Generale’s then CEO described Kerviel as a “crook, fraudster and terrorist” after the scam fell apart.

Friday’s verdict follows hearings at the Versailles appeal court in June in which lawyers for Societe Generale made a fresh attempt to claw back the cash.

The bank said it had “always recognised the weaknesses and faults in its system of checks”, but that Kerviel was responsible for the trades.

In June, a Paris labour tribunal ordered Societe Generale to pay him 450,000 euros in damages, saying he had been fired “without genuine or serious cause”. The bank has appealed.

Kerviel, the son of a village blacksmith from the far west of rural Brittany, divides opinion in France.

Many believe he is a scapegoat while others think he should pay the price for his actions.

He has never denied taking risks – at one point staking 50 billion euros of the bank’s money – but maintains that his bosses were just as much at fault as he was.

Although his annual salary of some 100,000 euros was modest compared with that of some of his fellow traders, Kerviel reportedly generated 1.9 billion euros for the bank before the financial crisis accelerated his losses.

Since his release from prison, Kerviel has reinvented himself as a computer security consultant and a trenchant critic of “casino capitalism”, even meeting Pope Francis after making a pilgrimage to Rome to protest against the “tyranny of the markets”.