His name has become a symbol of the excesses of finance and speculation. Jérôme Kerviel, the man on whose shoulders rests a debt of nearly €5 billion, speaks out in this exclusive Aleteia interview.
His name is surely not unknown to you: he considers himself the embodiment of all the excesses of unscrupulous financing, excessive speculation, limitless risk, and utter lawlessness in search of exorbitant profits. A former trader at Société Générale, he was accused of having gambled and lost billions of euro by his employer – a move that prevented his fall from becoming the collapse of an entire system. But even if he must now assume a debt equivalent to the losses that the bank is suing him for (nearly €5 billion) and a sentence of five years in prison (of which three have already been served), Kerviel appears to be carrying on well. As the final judgment of the Kerviel case approaches, the most indebted man in human history seems to be at peace with his conscience.
Why are you willing to speak out today, on the eve of the final judgment on your case?
My name has become synonymous with the very worst that the financial world can create. I have been inflicted with an unprecedented penalty of nearly €5 billion; no one before me has ever had to bear such a sentence. But this conviction is based on lies: Société Générale was fully aware that I took control of €50 billion in speculative trading. They accused me of having developed a “system”; a year before the media broke this case, an employee of the same bank had committed suicide after attempting to use this “system” himself – a system that our superiors taught us and which we had been trained to use. I wish to speak because, setting aside justice and my own fate, I want to report on the events that I am now forced to face, hoping that all this is not in vain.
Beyond money, what human costs have you had to endure as a result of this case?
The cost to me was the transformative process of what I ultimately came to be. I became that which the bank wanted me to become: first, a good soldier, unquestioning and lacking in integrity; then, a scapegoat. I’m shy and reserved by nature; my friend and lawyer laughs about it, saying that it is because I am from Brittany, and that Bretons are taciturn. I have the qualities of a perfect guilty man because I speak little and my voice is low. This has long been mistaken for contempt and arrogance, but it is quite the opposite; I have been scared in every moment of this case. I never know what to expect the next day, and this literally exhausts me and fills me with fear. I’ve fought to clear the name of my family after I was accused of being responsible for the financial crisis of 2008. I had the opportunity to say that I am the monster created and spat out by the world of finance. My father passed away being proud of my “journey” before all of these things came to pass. And though I mourn his absence, I am relieved that he did not live to see what I had to endure thereafter. My mother fell seriously ill immediately after the case went public, and probably will not survive my incarceration. I do not want her to die thinking I’ve sullied our family’s name.
Do you have confidence in the justice system?
It was decided that I should be the scapegoat in this case. I’ve been trying to prove my innocence for six years. My unjust imprisonment may be imminent. This file has become, much to my dismay, a public matter that seems to disregard my humanity. But the judicial errors that plague every piece of my file have made me lose all confidence in the justice of man.
Are you now ready to acknowledge your mistakes?
I was wrong in what I believe and in what was presented to me as an absolute fulfillment. I was wrong to participate in this system. I must admit that if I had not been at the heart of this case, I'm not sure I would have acquired the perspective needed to realize what I was doing and to measure the impact of my actions. I was merely doing what the bank told me to do – I have robbed no one.
Do you acknowledge any personal responsibility in this matter?
There are two questions within that statement. It is quite undeniable that the global financial system, which is so poorly regulated throughout the world, is at the origin of the successive crises that have had such serious consequences for the greater part of men and women on the planet. This system, as it exists today, will be the cause of its own collapse if world leaders do not agree to take action on the matter.
But am I guilty of what I am accused? That is, did I speculate without my employer’s knowledge? The answer is an emphatic no. I stand by what I’ve always said: my superiors knew of my trading strategy, and everything was fine so long as I was still making money for the bank. Moreover, to my knowledge, nowhere in the world of business is there a financial system that has denounced the actions of any trader, so long as he was generating money for them. It is a system of great hypocrisy, a system in which I actively participated.
Nevertheless, I never tried to evade my own culpability: yes, as part of my work, I speculated against certain companies, thereby impacting their business. I speculated against currencies, which contributed to their weakening in the international market. I speculated, thus saving a lot of money for my employer amid various financial and political crises. This is what I was trained to do. In sum, I participated in the worst things that could possibly be done in the world of finance – the most unhealthy and shameful things. What we did was presented as a “normal and useful activity,” but it was the complete opposite.
In a few words, how would you describe the workings of financial speculation?
The speculative system feeds on catastrophes and misfortunes, as speculators look for any excuse to make money without having produced anything beforehand. Let me be clear: speculation creates nothing. To give you an example of the perversity of the system, it is enough to remember that the most profitable trading days for banks are those which involve major disasters, terrorist attacks, declarations of war, etc.
What lessons do we have yet to learn from the financial crisis?
No concerted or substantive reform will take place so long as politicians around the world fail to take a stand and denounce the evil and devastating effects of finance. If I could draw a parallel, the excesses of finance are treated as casually as climate change: everyone understands that we are playing with fire unless we mobilize the resources needed to enact substantial reforms.
After six years of fighting, do you feel ready to face prison?
No; no person innocent of that of which he is accused can ever reconcile himself to an unjust punishment. The financial system will point to a scapegoat every chance it gets. I am that scapegoat, but I am not willing to accept that fact. On a personal level, my life has been greatly impacted by this case; it has wrongfully caused harm to my family, starting with my mother, who is courageously battling her disease. This case has also harmed many honest people who work at Société Générale and who are in contact with clients, but I note that many of these employees have given me their comforting support.
You have spoken about honesty and morality. In your own opinion, who do you think best embodies this message and values today?
Pope Francis is for me an example, the example, of honesty and righteousness. His words echo the education and values that were instilled in me by my parents, from which I never should have distanced myself. By his concrete actions, it is clear that the Pope puts people at the center of his speech and action. In my view, the Pope’s condemnation of the excesses of international finance – the closure of more than 900 bank accounts whose integrity was deemed extremely doubtful by the press – is a precedent-setting act of absolute courage and transparency that should be adopted by authorities in order to improve people’s lives. What I did not understand then but do see today is that the excesses of finance benefit very few people while seriously impacting the general population. It is strange for me to say this, because I admit that my faith is fragile, which is largely the result of the injustice of this case. But at the same time, I have faith in Pope Francis, and in his determination. He is for me the image of a lighthouse, averting us from danger. He has the capacity to infuse the system with morality and to put a check on the unbearable relegation of human beings to second place.
Jesús Colina is the Editor-in-Chief of Aleteia.