Sunday, October 28, 2012

Even crooks deserve a fair deal

Remember Jérôme Kerviel  ?  OK, very excusable if you have forgotten who he is. He was the rogue trader who almost brought Société Générale ( a reputed French bank) to its knees. This happened in 2008. Kerviel was a trader who punted like crazy in the casino, that is euphemistically called financial markets - he was making gigantic bets that involved European stock index futures. The whole thing unraveled, he was fired, Société Générale tottered and ultimately lost € 4.9 bn.
Criminal proceedings were launched against Jérôme Kerviel  and he was sentenced to prison and a fine. He appealed, and, on Friday, lost his appeal. What caught me was the quantum of the fine. He was fined € 4.9 bn, the quantum of the loss that Société Générale incurred.  A fine of € 4.9 bn ???? Kerviel has no money and is unemployed and probably unemployable. How on earth is he expected to pay  € 4.9 bn ?
This is outright crazy. The judges have fallen hook line and sinker to Société Générale's assertions that it didn't know what was happening and that Kerviel acted alone. PPPPlease ........ That, to put it mildly, is nonsense.  His bosses must have been cheering loudly as long as he made profits and have thrown the book at him, when the whole thing collapsed.  The bank didn't know ??????? Baloney.
Société Générale , and the judge, argue that the massive fine is to prevent him from capitalizing on his story by writing a book (which he has done) or making a movie. That is extreme logic. Every crook tries to make money from his infamy. Jeffrey Archer wrote a whole book about his prison experience and sold God knows how many copies. The fault is not that of the crook - the fault is with those who buy the book or go see the movie. 
Kerviel is not your ordinary villain. Sure he broke company rules and did unauthorized trading. But then a few thousand bankers have done the same . He made no money personally - even his bonus wasn't obscene. He was a case of gambling instincts gone completely out of control. Does he deserve a € 4.9 bn fine ?
The logic that employees are personally responsible to make good the losses that arise if they violate the rules is a dangerous one. Sometimes company rules are not explicit. Sometimes bosses nod and wink when they expect employees to do things that are shall we say, fifty shades of grey ! If I were to calculate the possibility of personal liability, when taking a business decision, I would never make a decision in the first place. Something like this is what is happening in Indian government circles today - no babu is making any decision for fear that Kejriwal will allege that he is corrupt. Everything has ground to a complete halt.
It is a reflection of the anger against bankers that public opinion has no sympathy for Kerviel. Nobody, but a few busybodies have raised a whimper. I however think this is an outrageous court decision. Kerviel deserves to be punished. He deserves to go to jail. But he should not be fined € 4.9 bn.
It is a mark of civilized society that even crooks are given a fair deal.

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