You Have 177,000 Years to Pay, Mr Kerviel




The Paris court order for former Société Générale trader Jérôme Kerviel to pay the largest ever damages awarded against an individual in French judicial history, has sharply divided public opinion.

It will take Kerviel more than 177,000 years to pay off the fine.

Kerviel who brought the bank close to collapse when it was revealed that he had lost 4.9 billion euros in illegal betting on financial markets, was sentenced to five years in jail two of which suspended, for fraud and ordered to repay the bank’s losses .

His lawyer, Olivier Metzner called the sentence, “unreasonable, unacceptable and totally excessive” and has lodged an appeal. The size of the fine is the equivalent to nearly one third of the annual amount of the EU’s agriculture subsidies to France (which total almost €14 billion) and will take the trader, now said to be earning under 2000 euros a month, 177,000 years to pay off.

Although the bank claims it was unaware of Kerviel’s dealings, the 33-year-old disgraced trader says his bosses encouraged him to break the rules as long as the money poured in. Heads rolled at executive level after the scandal first broke and the bank was subsequently fined 4 million euros by the supervisory authorities.

There are conflicting reports as to whether Société Générale will spare Kerviel from repaying the full amount or, with a lien on his earnings, force him into penury for the rest of his life.

The sentence has become a national talking point, provoking very mixed reactions.

Speaking after the trial, the president (or Speaker of the House) of the National Assembly Bernard Accoyer (UMP) said :”Since the outset all the figures in this affair have been beyond comprehension and this outcome merely continues that.” He told Canal + :”I never comment on judicial decisions and I note an appeal has been lodged, but I would say the world of high finance is in some kind of completely crazy cycle, it is total madness and all the figures bandied about since this began and indeed through to today are incomprehensible. I call for a return to commonsense both in this affair but more widely in the world of finance generally”.

He was not alone and while no one (except the defence team) questioned the rigorously argued correctness of the 70-page judgment handed down against Kerviel, the harshness of the sentence caused a sharp collective gasp for air. As American commentator Arthur Goldhammer noted in his blog on France: “Yesterday we hung the Holocaust on Pétain, today we hang the heist of the millennium on Jérôme Kerviel. But let’s face it: neither of these guys could have pulled it off alone. Good luck to the state on collecting on that 5 billion euros fine though”.

Indeed the view emerging in the media is that Kerviel has been hung out to dry and made the European fall guy for the appalling oversight failures by the French bank itself and in a wider context, in some way a scapegoat for public anger at the global banking system and the wrecking ball it took to the world economy in 2008.

Anger and anxiety abound in equal measure judging by the vox pops on the radio stations, commenters on newspaper websites and cafe small-talk in La France Profonde. “I don’t believe we are even a quarter of the way through this banking crisis” observed Francine as she served beer in a small village hotel in the Lot recently. “The government tells us to spend to help the economy but we all know we must tighten belts and save for the bad times ahead, no one I know is off on a spending spree anytime soon” she said.

Wisley as it turns out, if some of the latest economic forecasts are anywhere near the truth.

In a recent hardhitting report “Where did our money go? Building a banking system fit for purpose”, Tony Greenham Head of Finance and Business and Andrew Simms Policy Director of the UK’s New Economics thinktank are anything but optimistic. “The report concludes that considering the massive impact of the failure of the banks, action to address systemic problems has been woefully inadequate. It also argues that the current banking system is not yet fit for purpose when it comes to addressing the major economic, social and environmental challenges that we currently face.”

And they are not alone. Despite the best efforts of the European Central Bank to put the best face on the outlook ahead,  pessimistic economists continue to surface bearing reports of euro area doom and gloom.

So might it all go the way of the ill-starred Latin Monetary Union (LMU)? (This was an earlier attempt dreamt up by the French in 1848 and formally dissolved in failure in 1926, under which LMU, an extension of the franc zone, became a currency union covering Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, Greece and Bulgaria based on a joint silver and gold standard)

Most certainly yes is the view of Gabriel Stein, a director of London-based Lombard Street Research. Writing recently on the Critical Reaction website about the ongoing threat of a Greek default he noted: “Moreover, Greece is constantly at risk from contagion because of trouble elsewhere – especially from Spain, Portugal or Ireland. History teaches us two things which the Greek government should take to heart. First, subunits in a monetary union can default (eg, states of the United States in the Panic of 1837). Second, if the only threat your creditors hold over you is that they won’t lend you more money if you default, you should default. At the end of the day, Greece almost certainly will have to default – i.e. restructure its debt. That is not the end of the world. The country should also leave the euro area. A break-up of the euro area will cause substantial financial instability. It is not something to be desired, even in countries outside the single currency. But the choice is not between break-up and no break-up. The choice is between some countries – primarily Greece, Portugal, Span and finally Italy – leaving the EA, allowing the core – Germany, Benelux, Austria and France – to proceed with deeper integration (leaving the remaining small countries in the minnow vs. whale situation); or between the break-up of the whole single currency. But membership of the euro is primarily a political issue. As yet, there is no serious constituency in Greece – let alone the other candidates for leaving – that advocates reclaiming monetary sovereignty. Therefore, it will take further crises – crises that are inherent in the construction of EMU – before these issues are resolved. The Greek crisis is therefore indeed the end of the beginning – the end of the ‘innocent phase of EMU; and the beginning of the end – the end game where a number of countries will have to leave.”

Listen here to this mp3 voice report from Radio France Internationale – English Service. (Clicking will download an mp3 file which can be played in Windows Media Player or similar or on an Ipod).

Story: Ken Pottinger
editorial@french-news-online.com



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