Tuesday, September 20, 2011

UBS and that missing $2.3bn: Rogue trader, rogue company or rogue industry?

Revelations last week that UBS, the Swiss-based global financial services company, had shipped close to $2.3bn due to "unauthorized trading" in its London investment banking division focused intense media speculation on the derivatives trader at the heart of the scandal, Kweku Adoboli. Earning himself the now familiar epithet of the "rogue trader", Adoboli also claimed the dubious honor of a position at number 3 in the all time Rogue Trader Top 10, placing well behind Jérôme Kerviel at number 1 (with nearly $7bn in losses), but close to Yasuo Hamanaka at number 2 ($2.6 bn) and well in front of Nick Leeson at number 4 ($1.3bn). Like those before him, Adoboli's losses have had grave repercussions for his employer and for the bank's stakeholders. UBS's share price dropped by 10% after the losses were reported, and with almost the entire quarterly earnings of the firm wiped out, the bank is reportedly aiming to accelerate a major restructuring of its business, involving thousands of job losses. Meanwhile UBS was quick to reassure its well-heeled customers that none of their money was at risk, though a downswing in the bank's reputation and overall trust levels seems inevitable.

The narrative of the "rogue trader" is a seductive one in making sense of events like those at UBS. A lone trader going off the rails, committing fraud to make himself rich - what could be a simpler explanation? But as with Kerviel, Leeson and others before him, Adoboli does not appear to have been seeking to profit directly from the unauthorized trades (although clearly would benefit indirectly in terms of a higher bonus if the gamble paid off). In reality it was more a case of taking an illegal route to try and make the firm more money. Likewise, Adoboli hardly fits the stereotype of the evil genius that many will picture when thinking of a rogue trader. By all accounts the Ghanaian born, 31 year old seems to be pretty unremarkable.  He likes art and photography. He's "very polite", "very loyal" to his employers a "really nice guy" according to the neighbors, even his former landlord speaks highly of him. He went to private school and graduated from a respectable university (Full disclosure: actually he studied at the University of Nottingham, and graduated whilst Crane and Matten were teaching there - but did not, we might add, attend our ethics class). Clearly, a major share of the blame for UBS's losses must rest of the person who cooked the books to keep his spiraling losses secret. But he's hardly much of a rogue, it has to be said.

So where does the rest of the blame lie? UBS itself certainly has to take a large proportion of the responsibility. After all, what kind of financial institution doesn't realize that one of its employees is taking such wildly speculative positions and then cooking the books to hide it? Adobodi appears to have been making some unauthorized trades since 2008. In the end it was the trader himself who blew the whistle on his activities, not those who were responsible for exercising financial control. Internal and external auditing, back office controls, risk management, compliance -aren't they supposed to stop this kind of thing happening? Moody's the rating agency is belatedly pointing at "ongoing weaknesses" in the bank's risk management."We have continued to express concerns with regards to the ability of management to develop a robust risk culture and effective control framework," the agency said in the aftermath of the last week's disclosures. But this is hardly news for a bank like UBS that lost $37bn in the subprime mortgage crisis and had to be bailed out by Swiss taxpayers.

Myret Zaki, the author of a best-selling book on the bank has presented the situation as "a never-ending story repeating itself". "I'm not surprised at all about this," she told the UK newspaper the Telegraph "[UBS CEO] Oswald Grubel kept advocating an increase in risk-taking. When you have a CEO talking like that, you are not in a climate where you feel restricted, as a trader. He was on the side of continuing to make money on the markets, even though wealth management was employing 30pc fewer staff for double the profitability." Others, such as Richard Abbey, the senior managing director of financial investigations at Kroll, point to UBS's recent downsizing as a factor: "It's no coincidence that after downsizing and lay-offs these type of losses are more common. There may not be enough people to physically control checks and balances. It may be institutions are too reliant on computer controls and they are the easiest to bypass." In many respects then this was a time bomb waiting to go off - with Adobodi as much the symptom as the cause. This could be "rogue bank" just as much as "rogue trader".

Taking a broader perspective on the scandal, maybe we don't need to stop the blame game at Adobodi  and UBS. As with the recent financial crisis, perhaps this is also a deeper rooted problem of the financial services industry as a whole. According to the Telegraph, "unauthorized" trading could be considerably more widespread than the occasional huge rogue trader incident suggests: "experts and insiders warn the amount of risky unauthorised trading is difficult to quantify and often not brought to the public eye unless losses are huge enough to be announced". The paper goes on to quote a "senior trader" at a London bank: "People are fired every year for having stuff on their book that they shouldn't. All the banks tend to know what has happened and why someone has left, but it doesn't get publicised. It's usually only a couple of million bucks." So while Adobodi may be number 3 in the rogue trader top 10, we never even get to hear about all those entries lower down the charts. Jérôme Kerviel, who's still there at the top of the list has suggested that companies like Société Générale, his then employer, may even tacitly endorse such trades as long as they are making the bank money. It's only when they start registering huge losses that the controls really kick in. As even the Wall Street Journal recently quipped: "what do you call a 'rogue' trader who makes $2 billion? A Managing Director!" These may of course be little more than jokes, rumors and groundless accusations. But clearly the financial services industry has a major task ahead of it to clean up its reputation and regain the trust of its stakeholders. The events at UBS are going to make that task even harder now. We don't just have a rogue trader on our hands. We have a rogue industry.

Photo by Ahmad Nawawi. Reproduced under Creative Commons Licence


  1. I remember watching Ewan McGregor playing the role of Nick Leeson a few years back in 'Rogue Trader' and the morning paper back in 08' where Kerviel was suspected of rogue trading. In light of the subprime and financial crisis, most financial institutions facing bankruptcy and when downsizing was a necessity, I find it hard to fathom how people still "beat" the economic system and all the strict controls placed around the industry. I agree with the view that it is the industry that might be to blame, most traders rarely appear "evil" despite their morally dubious decisions at work. However as Adoboli said in an interview, he did it because of the social pressure at work to make money. He stated he clearly wanted to reach the "higher bonus tier" by making more trades since the social discrimination at work. He wanted to be seen as a bigger player and more respected in his role at work. I think there were individual and situational factors at play but that the situational factors at work pressured him into becoming a rogue trader.

  2. Yes Thomas, you're right that both individual and situational factors look to have played a role here. Rogue traders are rarely very rogue-ish. But they may be more susceptible than others to particular influences like the need to be more respected in a culture where respect is directly tied to bonuses.


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