Thursday, January 24, 2008

Societe Generale Reports EU4.9 Billion Trading Loss

(Bloomberg) -- Societe Generale SA reported a 4.9 billion-euro ($7.1 billion) trading loss, the largest in European history, and accused an unidentified trader of fraud after wrong- way bets on stock index futures.

France's second-largest bank by market value plans to raise 5.5 billion euros from investors after the trading loss and subprime-related writedowns depleted capital, the Paris-based company said today. The Bank of France, the country's banking regulator, said it's investigating the situation.

The trading shortfall rivals the $6.6 billion Amaranth Advisors LLC lost in 2006, and is more than three times the $1.8 billion of losses by Nick Leeson that brought down Barings Plc in 1995. An offer by Chairman Daniel Bouton to resign after the trades were discovered this past weekend was refused by Societe Generale's board, the bank said.

``At first this seemed like a joke,'' said Nicolas Rutsaert, an analyst covering European banks at Dexia SA in Brussels. Societe Generale ``was a leader in derivatives and was considered one of the best risk managers in the world.''

Societe Generale fell 4.44 euros, or 5.6 percent, to 74.64 euros by 12:15 p.m. in Paris trading, bringing declines this year to 24 percent and valuing the bank at 34.9 billion euros.

Derivatives Leader

Societe Generale has ranked first or second during the past five years in client surveys of equity derivative firms, according to Risk Magazine. In 2007, it received the award for ``Equity Derivatives House of the Year'' from The Banker, a London-based monthly magazine.

The trading loss wipes out almost two years of pretax profit at Societe Generale's investment-banking unit, run by Jean-Pierre Mustier. The company has started disciplinary proceedings against the trader, and four to five people will be fired as a result of the loss, Mustier told reporters at a press conference in Paris. The trader's manager Luc Francois, the head of equity markets, is among those who will lose his job, said spokesman Hugues Le Bret.

``The transactions that were built on the fraud were simple, positions linked to rising stock markets, but they were hidden through extremely sophisticated and varied techniques,'' Bouton, 67, said in a letter posted on the bank's Web site.

The fraudulent trades began in early 2007, Bouton said at a press conference. The trader didn't enrich himself and his motivations are unclear, said Bouton.

Capital Increase

The bank said it will post a profit of between 600 million euros and 800 million euros for 2007 and pay a dividend equal to 45 percent of its earnings. ``Most of the sectors, in France and abroad, continue to produce good, and sometimes excellent results,'' Bouton said.

The company said it plans to raise capital by selling shares in a rights offer underwritten by JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley. Following the transaction, the bank's Tier 1 ratio, a measure of solvency, will rise to about 8 percent from 6.7 percent at the end of 2007.

Societe Generale, which was founded in 1864 under a decree issued by Napoleon II, has 120,000 employees in 77 countries and 22 million retail-banking clients, according to information on its Web site.

``Banks, despite the implementation of sophisticated risk management solutions, are still under the threat that an employee with a good understanding of the risk management processes can get round them to hide his losses,'' said Axel Pierron, a senior analyst at Celent, an international financial research firm.

Rogue Traders

Societe Generale's report of fraud, the latest involving rogue traders, comes four months after French competitor Credit Agricole SA said an unauthorized proprietary trade at its investment-banking unit in New York cost it 250 million euros.

In 1994, Kidder Peabody, then owned by General Electric Co., took a $210 million charge against first-quarter earnings to reflect what it said were false profits recorded by bond trader Joseph Jett. The allegations and unrelated bond losses led GE to sell most of Kidder to Paine Webber in 1995. UBS AG bought Paine Webber in 2000.

Sumitomo Corp. disclosed a $2.6 billion loss in 1996 on copper trades. The Japanese firm blamed unauthorized trades by its chief copper trader, Yasuo Hamanaka, who was known as ``Mr. Copper'' in the markets because of his aggressive trading. Hamanaka was sentenced to eight years in prison in 1998.

Subprime Writedowns

Allied Irish Banks Plc discovered in 2002 that John Rusnak, a trader at its Allfirst Financial Inc., had amassed and hidden $691 million of losses over more than five years before the company noticed any discrepancies. Rusnak was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison. Allied Irish sold the Baltimore-based unit to M&T Bank Corp.

Societe Generale said that it has already closed all the positions set up by the trader, who had used his experience working in the back office to hide his trades through fictitious transactions.

Societe Generale said it's taking 1.1 billion euros of writedowns linked to the U.S. residential real estate market, 550 million euros related to U.S. bond insurers, and 400 million euros on other unspecified risks.

In the third quarter, the bank reported 375 million euros of writedowns and trading losses linked to turmoil in financial markets. The world's biggest financial companies have announced more than $120 billion in writedowns and credit losses as the U.S. housing slump rattles debt markets.

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