Set your Swiss watch for the next billion-pound debacle | Marina Hyde

'Rogue' trading is the new normal in a barely regulated City. Prepare to be flabbergasted for some time to come

Do you have your shocked face ready for 2014? It is three years since the Société Générale trader Jérôme Kerviel was able to cause $7bn of losses to his bank, and now another "rogue" trader has dutifully whooshed down the slipway to enliven 2011. He is Kweku Adoboli, the UBS employee alleged to have run up almost $2bn of losses. By my calculations, the next one will be due in 2014 – indeed, you are strongly advised to set your Swiss watch by it. And given that George Osborne says his new rules for banks should be implemented by 2019, you may as well prepare to look flabbergasted in 2017 as well.

We're encouraged to relish the madcap pace of the internet age, but it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the moneymen's attention span is now derided by gnats. It used to take more than a decade for people to forget a property crash, say, and rush gamely into another, but these days one gets the feeling that if the market conditions were deemed right, lenders would already be falling over themselves to offer people 125% mortgages again. Perhaps we should put a school of goldfish in charge of regulating the banks, so that every few years they could swim back round to the most septic corner of their tank and mouth "what fresh hell is this?", as if beholding it for the first time.

Naturally, there are many people in this latest saga for whom one can't help feeling desperately sorry. My tears liquefied instantly on reading the UBS chief executive's internal memo to staff about The Unpleasantness, which began with a sort of group hug. "We understand that you have already had to contend with unfavourable, volatile markets for some time now," cooed Oswald Grübel. Well, quite. Perhaps next time there's a run of lively events, the editor of this newspaper could send all journalists an email expressing sympathy that we "have had to contend with lots of dramatic news stories for some time now". And yet, aren't markets what these guys do? It's terribly confusing – a bit like when they all became socialists for the bailout.

Another victim is Nick Leeson, who, if the current allegations are proved, has slipped yet another notch down the all-time rankings of rogue traders. Let's hope clever people will devote some proper time to adjusting his 1995 Barings cock-up for inflation and so on, instead of frittering it away on devising a computer system that could limit the possibilities of further cock-ups. I, for one, am perfectly happy to accept what now appears to be the prevalent wisdom of the City's wise men: namely, that you could never possibly in the field of human endeavour invent anything that could stop the likes of Kerviel building up an exposure of almost ¤50bn apparently unbeknownst to his bosses.

Unsurprisingly, Kerviel alleged his bosses were distinctly relaxed when the fat cows were coming out of the Nile. As noted in a 2008 New Yorker article optimistically titled The Omen, he claimed to have told them of his first megabucks-generating "hidden" position. "Their first reaction was satisfaction, naturally," he recalled in police interviews, "although they told me ... to avoid such positions, because I could just as easily have lost." Kerviel's defence that his superiors knew what he was doing was rejected at his trial. But it's clear that only when he eventually did lose, irrevocably, did we hear about it.

It is against this shadowy backdrop that "rogue" is rapidly emerging as a euphemism for "losing". Rogue trades are always losing trades. Yet if we were to convince late capitalism to lie down on the couch and inquire of it: "Why do you choose not to learn from your mistakes?", the honest answer would probably be: "Well, doctor, because for a significant portion of the time they aren't mistakes." As plenty of people have pointed out this week, one only ever hears about the unauthorised losses.

It is not for us to speculate what percentage of a notional bank's notional multibillion profits might have been accrued as the result of unauthorised wins. In fact, it is not even for us to speculate about the unauthorised losses of which we don't hear. A few months before Kerviel's activities came to light, a fellow trader at Société Générale had jumped off a bridge in Paris after being questioned about a mere ¤9m of unauthorised trades, but that incident was kept quiet until a union official went public with it after Kerviel's exposure.

Back in the earliest days of 2008, the fact that Kerviel could have built up that ¤50bn exposure was presented as a sort of bizarre anomaly of the system. By the end of that same year it was the notion of isolated lunacy that looked quaint, as the world became bitterly accustomed to the idea that the entire system had gone rogue. Still, on it goes, and there'll be another one along in a minute. Perhaps the most tactful thing one can say about it is that the powers that be have forgotten more about "rogue trading" than we little people ever knew.

Contributor

Marina Hyde

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Former trader Jérôme Kerviel wins unfair dismissal case
French tribunal agrees that bank had full knowledge of rogue trader’s dealings before he was fired in 2008

Angelique Chrisafis in Paris

07, Jun, 2016 @5:43 PM

Article image
Beware the holes in the Swiss system
UBS's reputation will be hard to fix after alleged rogue trading

Nils Pratley

15, Sep, 2011 @7:47 PM

Article image
Trading tactics: Soc Gen's Jérôme Kerviel and UBS's Kweku Adoboli

Like the Société Générale rogue trader, Adoboli worked on a trading desk known as delta-one

Jill Treanor

15, Sep, 2011 @6:54 PM

Article image
Jérôme Kerviel not a fraudster but a 'creation' of Société Générale, court told
A Paris court will rule on charges against former Société Générale trader Jérôme Kerviel on 5 October

Kim Willsher in Paris

25, Jun, 2010 @3:56 PM

The Business podcast: Rogue banks and rogue traders

John Gapper and Jill Treanor discuss a new report into the failure of Royal Bank of Scotland. Plus: we look at the history of rogue traders.

Presented by Katie Allen and produced by Phil Maynard

14, Dec, 2011 @9:16 AM

Article image
Banking is set up for scandal – don’t blame the individuals | Nesrine Malik
Nesrine Malik: Bankers are human as the rest of us, which is why we need to rethink the size, structure and unwieldiness of the banking system itself

Nesrine Malik

31, Oct, 2014 @12:30 PM

Article image
UBS faces large fine from Swiss and UK regulators after trial
Swiss bank braced for reprimand over jailing of Kweku Adoboli for fraud

Jill Treanor

22, Nov, 2012 @8:19 PM

Article image
Société Générale uncovers £3.7bn fraud by rogue trader

Man responsible for biggest fraud in financial history named online as 31-year-old Jerome Kerviel

Fiona Walsh and David Gow

24, Jan, 2008 @4:27 PM

Article image
UBS trader admits losing control over billion pound deals
Kweku Adoboli tells court his Swiss bank colleague told him to 'push the boundaries so far that you receive a slap on the wrist'

Peter Walker and agencies

30, Oct, 2012 @6:26 PM

Article image
The euro gets off scot-free in this debacle – just like the black rat | Simon Jenkins
Simon Jenkins: The eurozone suffers from the same folly that, in the 14th century, saw the Black Death blamed on everything bar its cause

Simon Jenkins

07, Jun, 2012 @7:40 PM