PARIS : French banking giant Societe Generale said on Thursday a single trader who fooled his bosses carried out a massive 4.9 billion euro (7.15 billion dollar) fraud - one of the biggest scams in financial history.
Bank sources identified the trader as 31-year-old Jerome Kerviel, who had worked at Societe Generale in Paris since 2000 and had been on the trading desk since 2005. His whereabouts were unknown.
Trading in the bank's shares was temporarily suspended at the bank's request and stock closed 4.14 percent lower on news of the fraud and a 2.05 billion euro loss in the US sub-prime mortgage market.
The bank said the losses cut its 2007 profit to 600-800 million euros from 5.2 billion euros in 2006 and that it needed a capital increase of 5.5 billion euros to restore its balance sheet.
The fraud is another blow to investor confidence in a global banking sector already suffering from multi-billion dollar write-downs at some of the biggest lenders in Britain and the United States.
The case dwarfs that of Nick Leeson, the original British "rogue trader" who lost 1.5 billion dollars at Barings, causing the failure of the venerable British bank in 1995.
Societe Generale chief executive and chairman Daniel Bouton said the rogue trader had used "extremely sophisticated and varied techniques" to carry out "fraud of a considerable scope" and that he "had the intelligence to escape all control procedures."
The bank, which insisted he acted alone, said he took out "massive fraudulent directional positions in 2007 and 2008 beyond his limited authority."
But experts called into question the bank's version, saying it seemed unlikely that a trader would have managed to successfully hide such colossal losses.
"It seems a bit much to believe that for an entire year this would have gone undetected," said Elie Cohen, a professor of economics at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.
"One person alone cannot trigger such a catastrophe," commented Arnaud Riverain from the private firm Arkeon Finance, who said the bank's trading desk must have suffered from some "dysfunction."
Kerviel, who earned less than 100,000 euros per year, allegedly built up the huge losses dealing in derivatives trading.
"The transactions which involved the fraud were simple - taking a position on shares rising - but hidden using extremely sophisticated and varied techniques," said Bouton in a statement.
He said the trader had been suspended after confessing to the fraud and that legal action would be taken against him.
But asked about his whereabouts, Bouton responded: "I don't know where he is."
One of France's three biggest banks, Societe Generale filed a court complaint against the trader, accusing him of falsifying bank documents, use of falsified bank documents and unauthorised computer access.
The Paris prosecutor's office opened a preliminary investigation into the scandal while scores of shareholders lodged suit against the bank for fraud and misconduct.
Top executives were fired and Bouton, whose offer to resign was rejected, said both he and his deputy Philippe Citerne would forego their salaries for six months and bonuses for 2007.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the fraud was "a serious matter but at the same time, it has nothing to do with the current situation on the global financial markets."
Finance Minister Christine Lagarde said she had asked the country's banking regulator to bring in tougher controls in response to the scandal.
Societe Generale said in a statement that the rogue trader had been carrying out what it called "vanilla futures hedging" on European equity markets - industry jargon for the most most basic kind of futures purchase.
It said he had an in-depth knowledge of the bank's control systems, and managed to cover his tracks "through a scheme of elaborate fictitious transactions."
These were discovered and investigated on January 19 and 20, it said.
A Societe Generale union source said it appeared that the trader had not acted for personal profit.
"The trader in question was experienced, knew how the bank worked. It seems he was playing the markets, but not for his own profit, and caused enormous losses," the source told AFP.
A human resources official described him as a "fragile" individual, "without particular genius" and facing family problems.
The rogue trader scandal is one of the biggest to hit the international finance industry.
Three years after Nick Leeson caused the meltdown of Britain's Barings bank, the Japanese Yasuo Hamanaka was jailed in 1998 for a decade of rogue trading which cost the Sumitomo Corporation of Japan 2.6 billion dollars.
And in 2002 John Rusnak, a trader employed by Allied Irish Bank, was jailed for seven-and-a-half-years by a US court for losing the company 750 million dollars through unauthorised currency trading.
Societe Generale's stock has lost 20 percent of its value since the start of the year and 50 percent since last May.
The Fitch credit ratings agency lowered its ranking for Societe Generale debt to AA- from AA and some analysts said the bank risked becoming a takeover target. - AFP/ls/de