June 3, 2010 / 12:25 PM / 10 years ago

Jerome Kerviel, a Breton boy burnt by banking

PARIS (Reuters) - Ever since his disastrous stock market bets nearly brought down one of France’s biggest banks, Jerome Kerviel has waged a carefully orchestrated media campaign to win public sympathy ahead of his criminal trial.

Jerome Kerviel, former junior trader at French bank Societe Generale, poses during an interview with Reuters in the office of his lawyer in Paris April 29, 2010. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Kerviel, who rose from relatively humble origins in the French countryside of Brittany to enter one of Paris’s most powerful trading rooms, has consistently said he was just a pawn in a rotten financial system.

Last month, he brought out a book called “Trapped: Memories of a Trader” in which he related the events behind his downfall in January 2008, when his former bank Societe Generale (SOGN.PA) blamed him for 4.9 billion euros ($6.0 billion) of losses.

In the book, Kerviel compares financial trading to prostitution.

“At the heart of this great banking orgy, traders are only given the same consideration as any street prostitute: a quick thank-you for a good day’s takings.”

GENIUS OR MEDIOCRE BACKROOM BOY?

Kerviel, 33, faces charges of breach of trust, computer abuse and falsification. His trial starts next week and he risks five years in jail and paying 375,000 euros in fines if found guilty.

Following SocGen’s revelation of the trading losses on January 24, 2008, Kerviel became an international celebrity overnight, similar to British trader Nick Leeson whose losses brought down blue-blooded merchant bank Barings in 1995.

His employee photo swirled around the Internet, Facebook fanpages were devoted to him, and the police raided his flat in the wealthy Paris suburb of Neuilly for clues to his background.

It was a far cry from his upbringing in the sleepy French town of Pont-l’Abbe, where Kerviel would help out his mother in her hairdressing salon.

After leaving school in Pont-l’Abbe, Kerviel graduated with finance degrees from Nantes and Lyon universities before joining SocGen in 2000, where he gradually moved from back-office roles to end up as a fully fledged trader.

French newspapers and commentators said Kerviel’s social background jarred with that of his colleagues on the SocGen trading floor, many of whom are upper-middle-class graduates from France’s top “Grande Ecole” universities.

Kerviel has denied feeling any inferiority complex with regards to his colleagues, but his book describes with some scorn how many of them indulged in childish, sexist banter despite their bourgeois upbringing.

Kerviel’s knowledge of back-office computer functions enabled him to conceal some of his bets by offsetting deals with fictional counterparties, leading Bank of France Governor Christian Noyer to describe him as a “genius of fraud.”

However, others described Kerviel as an essentially mediocre trader who was caught out after racking up a series of losses by mistakenly betting that the global credit crisis would ease off at the start of 2008.

Kerviel amassed a trading position of nearly 50 billion euros, more than the stock market value of SocGen, which brought him in for questioning in mid-January 2008 — ruining Kerviel’s planned romantic weekend in the coastal town of Deauville.

Kerviel’s brief trading career was over.

“I had taken too much of a risk, my trading positions were too big. I had succumbed to the intoxication of the numbers game and to the excitement of my job and there were no safeguards to rein me in,” he says in his book.

($1=.8131 Euro)

Editing by Marcel Michelson and Michael Shields

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