The Rogue Traders' Gallery

Published in Investing on 7 October 2010

Jerome Kerviel is merely the latest in a long line of wayward traders...

In 1987's Wall Street, experienced trader Marvin says to rookie Bud Fox, "We're all just one trade away from humility."

Jérôme jailed

How true this must ring for 33-year-old Jérôme Kerviel, who was sentenced to three years in prison (with two more years suspended) by a Paris court on Tuesday.

In January 2008, the ex-trader's unauthorised trading blew a €4.9 billion hole in the accounts of his employer, Société Générale. Offloading Kerviel's huge €50-billion position caused European equity markets to fall steeply.

However, like many latter-day 'rogue traders', Kerviel initially made his employer considerable profits from futures trading -- as much as €1.4 billion, according to the BBC. In addition, JK claimed that his superiors were aware of the size of his trading book and turned a blind eye until his losses mounted -- a common refrain trotted out by failed traders.

The Trading Hall Of Shame

As veteran investors and financial historians know, Kerviel is just one in a long line of rogue traders. Despite their best efforts to beef up their compliance and computer security, investment banks (and, sometimes, commercial and retail banks) seem unable to stamp out illicit trading.

Here are a few of the most infamous rogue traders and trading disasters of recent times:

Bernard 'Bernie' Madoff

Although not strictly speaking a trader, Bernie Madoff's deception was so great that he merits inclusion in my list. 

In December 2008, Madoff (pronounced 'made off'!) admitted that his highly regarded investment fund was nothing more than a giant Ponzi scheme. The exact loss for his investors remains unclear, but has been put as high as $65 billion (£41 billion).

Steve Perkins

After returning to his office from a bibulous golfing weekend in June 2009, 'fully refreshed' oil trader Steve Perkins bought seven million barrels of oil. Perkins built up a $520 million position, accounting for almost seven-tenths (69%) of that day's oil trading worldwide. This bizarre move caused an unexpected $1.50 spike in the price of a barrel of oil in the early hours of the morning.

Unwinding his positions generated a $10 million (£6.3 million) loss for Perkins' employer, PVM Oil Associates. Banned by City regulator the FSA from trading for five years, 34-year-old Perkins now works in Geneva for Swiss commodity broker Starsupply Renewables.

David Redmond

Perkins was closely following in the footsteps of ex-Morgan Stanley trader David Connor Redmond. On 6 February 2008, Redmond returned from a boozy 3½-hour lunch and opened a large short position in oil futures. After concealing his trades overnight, Redmond closed the position the next day.

Morgan Stanley fired Redmond for unauthorised trading and he was later banned from financial markets by the FSA for two years. Clearly, well-oiled traders don't make good oil traders. Hic!

Brian Hunter

Hunter successfully identified a seasonal anomaly in natural-gas prices which enabled him to rack up big profits for his employer, hedge fund Amaranth Advisors.

However, Hunter got over-confident, buying up more than half of all natural-gas contracts in some months. In effect, Hunter went from trading the market to being the market. 

When prices crashed and Hunter lost over $6 billion, Amaranth -- once worth $9 billion -- bit the dust in September 2007. In a final irony, Amaranth is Greek for 'unfading'.

John Rusnak

Rusnak was a currency trader at Allfirst, a US bank owned by Allied Irish Banks (LSE: ALBK) His is a familiar tale: by trying to cover up small losses and trade his way back to profit, Rusnak got out of his depth. 

By the time his deception came to light in February 2002, Rusnak's losses amounted to $691 million. He served six years of a 7½-year jail sentence before being released in January 2009.

(Frankly, Rusnak's loss seems trivial when compared with AIB's vast losses since 2008 and its subsequent bailout and nationalisation by the Irish government!)

Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM)

Today, failed hedge fund Long-Term Capital Management is a byword for the dangers of leverage, liquidity and losses. However, from its formation in 1994 until its collapse in September 1998, LTCM made annual profits approaching 40% for its investors.

Despite having two Nobel Prize-winning economists on its board and being crammed with top traders, LTCM's complex, highly levered trading strategies were blown up in the aftermath of the Russian bond default and rouble devaluation of August 1998.

LTCM's vast positions in a range of financial markets made it 'too big to fail', leading to a Federal Reserve-sponsored bailout of $3.6 billion from its major creditors.

Orlando Joseph 'Jo' Jett

Jo Jett was a bond trader at Kidder, Peabody -- a subsidiary of giant US conglomerate GE. In 2003, Jett's trading earned him a $9.3 million bonus and the title of 'GE Man of the Year'. Alas, in April 1994, it emerged that, by exploiting flaws in Kidder, Peabody's computer systems, Jett had inflated his trading profits by $340 million.

As a result, GE jettisoned Kidder, Peabody, selling the securities firm to rival PaineWebber in 1994. Jett's actions hurt me personally because, as an employee of GE Capital at the time, my bonus was reduced to offset Jett's losses. Grrr!

Yasuo Hamanaka

In the Nineties, Hamanaka was such a big player in copper trading that he earned the nickname 'Mr 5%', as he personally controlled around a twentieth of world supply of that metal.

Despite his moniker, Hamanaka's aggressive trading strategy was flawed and unprofitable. In June 1996, his employer, Japanese giant Sumitomo Corporation, disclosed that its chief copper trader had run up unauthorised losses over a decade of $1.8 billion (increased to $2.6 billion in September 1996).

Hamanaka got eight years in prison, but was released a year early in July 2005.

Nicholas 'Nick' Leeson

Leeson is surely the most famous British rogue trader of all. A derivatives broker in the Singapore office of Barings Bank, the UK's oldest merchant bank, Leeson traded equity futures in Singapore and Tokyo.

Leeson hid his bad trades in an error account numbered '88888', as eight is considered a lucky number in China. Alas, the Kobe earthquake of January 1995 created massive losses for Leeson which eventually totalled $1.4 billion. As a result, Barings was sold to Dutch banking giant ING for £1.

After fleeing Singapore and being arrested in Germany, Leeson served less than four years in prison in Singapore before his release in 1999. He now runs Irish football club Galway United.

In summary

As you can see, rogue traders are not a new phenomenon -- they've been around as long as financial markets have.

Indeed, as long as incentives exist to trade illicitly, dishonest financial traders will cover up their losses in order to bank big bonuses. After all, if their trades blow up, it's their employers who suffer most!

More from Cliff D'Arcy:

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Comments

The opinions expressed here are those of the individual writers and are not representative of The Motley Fool. If you spot any comments that are unsuitable hit the flag to alert our moderators.

GladToBeGrey 08 Oct 2010 , 6:26pm

According to their website - http://www.galwayunitedfc.ie/galway-united-club-directory - Nick Leeson appears to share the Office Manager role at Galway United. Not sure I'd call that 'running the club' exactly ...

dickdom 09 Oct 2010 , 12:36am

It was 1993 in which Orlando Joseph 'Jo' Jett got his $9.3 million bonus.

mudonroad 06 May 2011 , 9:15pm

Every time I see the phrase "Nobel Prize-winning economists" I feel it is my duty to point out there is NO Nobel Prize for economics! There is the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel which has incorrectly become known as a Nobel Prize, mainly through lazy journalism, but the actual discipline is not one of the five for which real Nobel Prizes are awarded.

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