No man can serve two masters

Rogue Trading at Lloyds Bank International, 1974: Operational Risk in Volatile Markets

By Catherine Schenk (Glasgow)

Abstract Rogue trading has been a persistent feature of international financial markets over the past thirty years, but there is remarkably little historical treatment of this phenomenon. To begin to fill this gap, evidence from company and official archives is used to expose the anatomy of a rogue trading scandal at Lloyds Bank International in 1974. The rush to internationalize, the conflict between rules and norms, and the failure of internal and external checks all contributed to the largest single loss of any British bank to that time. The analysis highlights the dangers of inconsistent norms and rules even when personal financial gain is not the main motive for fraud, and shows the important links between operational and market risk. This scandal had an important role in alerting the Bank of England and U.K. Treasury to gaps in prudential supervision at the end of the Bretton Woods pegged exchange-rate system.

Business History Review, Volume 91 (1 – April 2017): 105-128.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0007680517000381

Review by Adrian E. Tschoegl (The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania)

Since the 1974 rogue trading scandal at Lloyds’s Lugano branch we have seen more spectacular sums lost in rogue trading scandals. What Dr Catherine Schenk brings to our understanding of these recurrent events is the insight that only drawing on archives, both at Lloyds and at the Bank of England, can bring. In particular, the archives illuminate the decision processes at both institutions as the crisis unfolded. I have little to add to her thorough exposition of the detail so below I will limit myself to imprecise generalities.

Marc Colombo, the rogue trader at Lloyds Lugano, was a peripheral individual in a peripheral product line, in a peripheral location. As Schenk finds, this peripherality has two consequences, the rogue trader’s quest for respect, and the problem of supervision. Lloyds Lugano is not an anomaly. An examination of several other cases (e.g. Allied Irish, Barings, Daiwa, and Sumitomo Trading), finds the same thing (Tschoegl 2004).

In firms, respect and power come from being a revenue center. Being a cost center is the worst position, but being a profit center with a mandate to do very little is not much better. The rogue traders that have garnered the most attention, in large part because of the scale of their losses were not malevolent. They wanted to be valued. They were able to get away with their trading for long enough to do serious damage because of a lack of supervision, a lack that existed because of the traders’ peripherality.

In several cases, Colombo’s amongst them, the trader was head of essentially a one-person operation that was independent of the rest of the local organization. That meant that the trader’s immediate local supervisor had little or no experience with trading. Heads of branches in a commercial bank come from commercial banking, especially commercial lending. Commercial lending is a slow feedback environment (it may take a long time for a bad decision to manifest itself), and so uses a system of multiple approvals. Trading is a fast feedback environment. The two environments draw different personality types and have quite different procedures, with the trading environment giving traders a great deal of autonomy within set parameters, an issue Schenk addresses and that we will discuss shortly.

Commonly, traders will report to a remote head of trading and to the local branch manager, with the primary line being to the head of trading, and the secondary line being to the local branch manager. This matrix management developed to address the problem of the need to manage and coordinate centrally but also respond locally, but matrix management has its limitations too. As Mathew points out in the New Testament, “No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other” (Matthew (6:24). Even short of this, the issue that can arise, as it did at Lloyds Luggano, is that the trader is remote from both managers, one because of distance (and often time zone), and the other because of unfamiliarity with the product line. A number of software developments have improved the situation since 1974, but as some recent scandals have shown, they are fallible. Furthermore, the issue still remains that at some point the heads of many product lines will report to someone who rose in a different product line, which brings up the spectre of “too complex to manage”.

The issue of precautionary or governance rules, and their non-enforcement, is a clear theme in Schenk’s paper. Like the problem of supervision, this too is an issue where one can only do better or worse, but not solve. All rules have their cost. The largest may be an opportunity cost. Governance rules exist to reduce variance, but that means the price of reducing bad outcomes is the lower occurrence of good outcomes. While it is true, as one of Schenk’s interviewees points out, that one does not hear of successful rogue traders being fired, that does not mean that firms do not respond negatively to success. I happened to be working for SBCI, an investment banking arm of Swiss Bank Corporation (SBC), at the time of SBC’s acquisition in 1992 of O’Connor Partners, a Chicago-based derivatives trading house. I had the opportunity to speak with O’Conner’s head of training when O’Connor stationed a team of traders at SBCI in Tokyo. He said that the firm examined too large wins as intently as they examined too large losses: in either case an unexpectedly large outcome meant that either the firm had mis-modelled the trade, or the trader had gone outside their limits. Furthermore, what they looked for in traders was the ability to walk away from a losing bet.

But even small costs can be a problem for a small operation. When I started to work for Security Pacific National Bank in 1976, my supervisor explained my employment benefits to me. I was authorized two weeks of paid leave per annum. When I asked if I could split up the time he replied that Federal Reserve regulations required that the two weeks be continuous so that someone would have to fill in for the absent employee. Even though most of the major rogue trading scandals arose and collapsed within a calendar year, the shadow of the future might well have discouraged the traders, or led them to reveal the problem earlier. Still, for a one-person operation, management might (and in some rogue trading scandals did), take the position that finding someone to fill in and bring them in on temporary duty was unnecessarily cumbersome and expensive. After all, the trader to be replaced was a dedicated, conscientious employee, witness his willingness to forego any vacation.

Lastly, there is the issue of Chesterton’s Paradox (Chesterton 1929). When a rule has been in place for some time, there may be no one who remembers why it is there. Reformers will point out that the rule or practice is inconvenient or costly, and that it has never in living memory had any visible effect. But as Chesterton puts it, “This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable.”

Finally, an issue one needs to keep in mind in deciding how much to expend on prevention is that speculative trading is a zero-sum activity. A well-diversified shareholder who owns both the employer of the rogue trader and the employers of their counterparties suffers little loss. The losses to Lloyds Lugano were gains to, inter alia, Crédit Lyonnais.

There is leakage. Some of the gainers are privately held hedge funds and the like. Traders at the counterparties receive bonuses not for skill but merely for taking the opposite side of the incompetent rogue trader’s orders. Lastly, shareholders of the rogue traders firm suffer deadweight losses of bankruptcy when the firm, such as Barings, goes bankrupt. Still, as Krawiec (2000) points out, for regulators the social benefit of preventing losses to rogue traders may not exceed the cost. To the degree that costs matter to managers, but not shareholders, managers should bear the costs via reduced salaries.

References

Chesterton, G. K. (1929) ‘’The Thing: Why I Am A Catholic’’, Ch. IV: “The Drift From Domesticity”.

Krawiec, K.D. (2000): “Accounting for Greed: Unraveling the Rogue Trader Mystery”, Oregon Law Review 79 (2):301-339.

Tschoegl, A.E. (2004) “The Key to Risk Management: Management”. In Michael Frenkel, Ulrich Hommel and Markus Rudolf, eds. Risk Management: Challenge and Opportunity (Springer-Verlag), 2nd Edition;

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