Just when you thought the situation in world banking couldn’t get any more surreal, a French bank has produced something worthy of a gold medal award for stupidity — Groupe Caisse d’Epargne lost over 600 million in euros in losses from a financial derivatives play that went bad. Groupe Caisse d’Epargne is France’s third-largest mutual savings bank.

In fact, it would top the previous holders of the medal, Societe Generale, which lost 4.9 billion euros in unauthorsed trading. A year ago Credit Agricole made its bid for glory by revealing that its investment bank arm in New York lost 250 million euros due to unauthorised trading by a single trader in New York.

The situation and huge losses provides support for the idea that it was as much as stupidity, as well as greed, that has produced the series of financial crises from the subprime mess, to credit derivatives no one knew deeply or understood, to the credit crunch and freeze.

Many in France have blamed what they called “Anglo-Saxon” finance and culture for the problems in world market: the reality lies much closer to home. It is quite clear that 16 months into the crisis and after what we went through in September, there are some in the banks who don’t understand what has happened and the cause of the problems.

Management at this French bank is just as culpable. It raises the question of should anyone be really trading in derivatives now with extreme volatility and other problems in financial markets? Obviously they are, with the intent of making money and enriching the bank and themselves. Does this apply to other banks?

Media reports on Friday said that derivatives traders had exceeded authorised limits on size and ignored instructions to trade cautiously when using the bank’s own account.

The reports said that the four-person trading team had placed bets that stock markets would rise and found themselves unable to unwind the positions in the stock market crash two weeks ago. Once the markets crashed in the week beginning October 6 they were stranded.

The individuals concerned have either been dismissed or moved to other positions. An unnamed long-serving senior executive had been suspended and the bank said this morning that its chairman had quit and wouldn’t be looking for a departure payment.

The Financial Times reported that the French bank had decided to stop trading in this area and was winding down its business when the losses were incurred. That makes the losses even more amazing and the management and board of the bank even more culpable.

Caisse d’Epargne said it had more than 20 billion euros of shareholders’ equity and that the losses did not affect its “financial solidity”.

Naturally, the French Government has ordered an inquiry. But according to a recent article in The Economist, the answer might be found in French culture. Many graduates of the country’s elite universities and Ecoles have high level maths. Many trading ideas and logarithms are developed in French investment banks, or by graduates of these Ecoles. The French Government is apparently trying to lessen the emphasis on high level maths in graduate schools and placing more weight on a broader education.

It is no accident that the credit crunch was first noticed on August 9 last year when BNP Paribas, a major French bank, refused to back two off-balance sheet investment structures that needed new funds, with the head of BNP saying to the media “there is no liquidity”. It has been getting tighter ever since, but is anyone listening or learning in France?

Peter Fray

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