Friday, January 25, 2008

Banker's Chutzpah

While there was no end of chutzpah volleying and thundering in Davos (about as far as one can get from Tennyson's "Valley of Death"), my personal interest in "the uses of history for decision makers" compels me to assign the Chutzpah of the Week award to Jean-Pierre Mustier, head of Société Générale's investment bank for his comment about the post hoc investigation of Jérôme Kerviel's trading activities, which cost the bank $7.2 billion (as reported by Michael A. Hiltzik and Geraldine Baum for the Los Angeles Times, "The reasons are incomprehensible." Admittedly, as Hiltzik and Baum observed, Kerviel's accomplishment "swamps the previous high water mark for activity by a rogue trader set by Nicholas Leeson, who lost $1.38 billionin Asian futures and other derivatives at Barings Bank in 1995," which, they remind us, was enough to send Barings into bankruptcy. Leeson now manages a soccer club in Ireland and told the BBC that he was "shocked" by the size of the Société Générale loss. Still to hide behind incomprehensibility is to admit a total lack of working hypotheses in a time of crisis. This is either just plain dumb or it amounts to saying "none of your business" at a time when other financial analysts are hypothesizing that it was the knee-jerk liquidation of Kerviel's futures positions that provoked the global market chaos at the beginning of this week. Mustier's defensive posture amounts to making a bad situation worse, which reflects an opinion offered by Olivier de la Ferriere, a financial analyst at Richelieu Finance in Paris. One would have thought that the head of a major investment bank would know when is not a good time for chutzpah, but I guess that just makes his chutzpah all the stronger.

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