Unusual name, Jerome. The only time I had come across it before was when it took two Jeromes to get three men up a river in a boat. Presumably thanks to the marvels of modern technology, it now takes just one Jerome to get one bank £3bn up the creek without a paddle! Of course, he would say that if the bank had held its nerve its loss would only have been £1.3bn instead of £3bn.
Three things spring to mind over this debacle. First is the bank involved, Societe Generale. Back in the dim and distant past, Elf Oil (they of Eleffant Oil) used to use Soc Gen for facilitating soft loans. For my younger readers I had better explain. Once upon a time, the UK petrol market was profitable enough for oilers, as part of a five-year sales agreement, to lend petrol dealers great wedges of dosh at heavily subsidised interest rates to fund development. But now that there’s no money left in petrol retailing per se, the retailer has to find his own funds.
Anyway, not for the first time, I fear, I digress. The point is that I once was the beneficiary of a soft loan from Elf and therefore had dealings with Societe Generale. I can’t recall all the exact details but I do remember that Soc Gen was a bureaucratic nightmare to deal with.
Secondly, it would seem that Jerome adopted totally the wrong approach if his intention was to make a tidy sum for himself. If he really wanted a fat pay cheque he should have become the chief executive of a big company, introduced a raft of disastrous management changes, presided over a string of appalling results and then sat back until he got a huge pay-off from the shareholders.
But the third facet of this sorry tale that helped to contribute to a worldwide stock exchange meltdown is the one that annoys me the most. What was Jerome actually doing with the bank’s funds in order to lose £3bn? Was he lending money to companies that then got into difficulties? Was he lending to individuals to buy homes at rates of capital repayment that they could never have afforded? No, what he was doing was just straightforward gambling on which way the stock exchange indices would move. Although on a larger scale, this was no different from you or me betting on which fly will crawl up a window first. In no way could this gigantic version of Bruce’s Play Your Cards Right have actually contributed to growing the economy or improving the living standards of the population. For this reason alone I am delighted to say to the bank "serves you bloody well right".
Banks were intended to help oil the wheels of the economy. To transfer funds from people who had too much to people who needed more to expand and develop. Done correctly this is a very lucrative and steady business. But it’s not sexy and it doesn’t bring in huge spikes of earnings. So gradually they have all got sucked in to gambling in one form or other including dabbling in commodities.
Now it’s very hard to earn really big bucks in genuine commodity trading, especially in a steady market. The spread between buying and selling on any one particular deal just isn’t big enough. So, if you’re employed on a commodities desk, what you need is some volatility. Then you can earn (or lose) extra by buying or selling forward and hoping that when the actual time comes the market has moved sufficiently to give you that extra margin. So, instead of the commodity’s price being dictated by genuine supply and demand pressures, what you get is a whole bunch of people continually churning virtually fictitious positions and producing over-exaggerated fluctuations in price. The downside, of course, is suffered by the people who genuinely need the commodity for their daily business. Like petrol station operators!
Which is why I shed no tears for Soc Gen. The sooner they, and the rest of their ilk, get out of gambling and back to genuine banking, the better.