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23 July 2024

SocGen case rekindles Barings memories

By Agencies



It was deja vu for Singaporeans when French bank Société Générale reported it had been defrauded of $7 billion (Dh26.1 billion) by a rogue trader.

The stocks derivatives scam in France reminded Singaporeans of their biggest corporate scandal more than a decade ago when Nick Leeson's risky stock futures trades in the city-state brought British Barings bank to its knees.

SocGen accused the Paris-based trader of taking "massive fraudulent" positions on European equity market indices, leaving them nursing $7.15 billion of losses.

The losses dwarfed the $1.4 billion (Dh5.11 billion) loss made by Leeson betting on Japan's Nikkei 225 Futures then traded on the defunct Singapore International Monetary Exchange (SIMEX).

There are many similarities in the two cases both dabbled in equity futures and both also knew how to skip the compliance and regulatory barriers.

The difference is that SocGen will live to fight another day while Barings was relegated to the history book of failed banks.

In Barings case, Leeson managed to circumvent the division between the back and front rooms, said K. Shanmugam, a local lawyer who represented SIMEX in the case against Leeson.

"His superiors couldn't understand what he was doing because the trades were too complicated for them."

While the consequences for Barings were dire, the episode did not hurt Singapore's financial system and helped authorities to improve regulation and vigilance, Shanmugam added.

Singapore, one of Asia's major financial centres, has seen two financial scandals since the Barings collapse.

China Aviation Oil (Singapore) Corp lost $550 million (Dh2.01 billion) in botched derivative deals on oil prices in 2004, and recently Sembcorp Marine accused its finance chief of illegal forex trades that led to about $300 million (Dh1.1 billion) in losses.

But for Singaporeans, the memory of Barings is still alive.

"Even though I was not surprised by what happened, there was a slight sense of deja vu ... I thought 'Oh my god, it's finally happened again'," said a Singapore financial executive, who dealt with the Barings scandal and asked not to be identified.

"I'm merely surprised by the magnitude of it and how it can happen to a reputable house such as SocGen." (Reuters)