Then, in 2008, Jerome Kerviel of Societe Generale lost 4.9 billion euros — about $6.8 billion.
And just last week, UBS suffered a $2.3 billion hit connected to an alleged rogue trader.
As history teaches us, there are no rogue traders; there are only rogue banks.
Here’s a news flash: If you issue credit, your working assumption must be that there are unqualified people who will try to borrow money from you. It is the job of every lending facility each and every day to separate the qualified borrower who has the capacity to service that debt from the unqualified borrowers who do not. This is why there is no such thing as a predatory borrower — banks must assume that all borrowers are predatory and protect themselves. This is why lenders — at least before 2002 – inquire about income, employment history, credit scores, other debt, etc., before making a mortgage loan.
Similarly, if your business involves the use of leveraged capital for speculation by your employees, then it is your job to know which, if any, of your people are not competent. It’s a simple mathematical fact that some of your traders will take losses; in some cases, enormous but manageable losses. Your job is to identify these people and move them to other professions.
There will be a small number who will try to hide their inabilities. Your job is to separate the qualified from the unqualified, to watch over the full lot of traders and speculators in your employ. Toward that end, you will establish trading limitations, leverage constraints, risk parameters. Traders must stay within the limitations you impose on them: money lines, maximum drawdowns, loss limits.
Thus firms that highly leverage their capital to put it into the hands of a few thousand employee speculators have a crucial job: They must ensure that capital is being precisely and properly managed. They must make sure that risk levels are tolerable, that proper controls are in place, that their IT systems and internal technology can track what is happening, in as near to real time as possible.
This is not easy. It is a complex set of processes that requires constant vigilance. It must be reflected in the corporate culture from the top down. And it becomes more and more complex as the size of the organization grows. The assumption must be that every employee is a potential rogue trader.
Banks are supposed to have expertise in preserving capital and managing risk. If they cannot discharge those simple duties, then perhaps they should not be in the business of finance. Most of all, they should not be engaging in behavior that puts taxpayer money at risk.
Anyone who runs a shop that has a proprietary trading desk is obligated to do everything in his power to prevent that single employee from bringing down the company. It’s not too hard to see that anyone who earns a bonus by risking the firm’s capital is a potential disaster.