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From Ghana, To London, To A Cell – Africa’s Rogue Trader

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According to the landlords, contemporaries, teachers and neighbors who have lined up in front of the media in recent weeks, Kweku Adoboli was a sociable, intelligent and overwhelmingly ‘nice guy’.

The financial community in London remains awash with speculation about how that nice guy from the industrial coastal town of Tema, in Ghana, came to be in a position to lose the Swiss bank, UBS, more than $2 billion as well as its CEO.

Adoboli’s background speaks of privilege, but is unremarkable amongst his peers in the City. The 31-year-old son of a UN staffer was schooled at the fee-paying, Quaker-run Ackworth School in West Yorkshire, where he was deputy head boy.

UBS Trader in court

He studied computer science and business at the University of Nottingham before joining UBS, where he worked until 3:30 in the morning on September 15, when the City of London police arrested him at the offices of UBS in Finsbury Avenue. Later that morning, UBS announced that it had made a loss of $2 billion due to “unauthorised trading”. It later revised the figure upwards to $2.3 billion.

Adoboli remains in custody in London on two charges of fraud—for the periods October 2008 to December 2010, and from January to September 2011; plus two charges of false accounting—from October 2008 to December 2009, and January 2010 to September 2011.

Facing charges, Adoboli told a court that he was “sorry beyond words” and called his vast trading losses “disastrous miscalculations”.

Those miscalculations have called into question the survival of investment banking at UBS, as the bank decides whether to cut off a division battered by poor performance and scandal. Oswald Gruebel, the bank’s CEO, resigned over the affair on September 25.

As Adoboli’s LinkedIn profile shows, he worked on the investment bank’s European equity desk in London, trading “Delta One” strategies.

“Delta One” refers to the ‘delta’—or marginal difference—between closely correlated asset classes. By buying equities and hedging using derivative products or baskets of other assets, these computer-driven strategies mop up money through the inefficiencies in the market. It is highly complex, but is also supposed to work within tightly controlled risk limits. For every position the trader takes, he or she is expected to take a counter position—or hedge—of almost equal size.

The Swiss and British authorities are now investigating how Adoboli was able to evade the systems that monitor these limits to place directional bets. The results of those probes are likely to be months away, but the investigators will no doubt have seized on Adoboli’s CV and its startling similarity to that of the last headline-grabbing rogue, the French trader, Jerome Kerviel. Kerviel cost Société Générale, the French bank, $6.6 billion in 2008.

Starting in the bank’s “middle office”—the risk management IT department—in 2000, Kerviel made the jump up to trading in 2005, also on a Delta One desk. The bank’s comprehensive “Mission Green” report into the incident charts his activity from that point. He began to take directional bets that same year, probably to cover up the fact that he had been consistently losing using conventional strategies, the report said.

Kerviel used his knowledge of the bank’s risk systems to hide the fact that his positions were not hedged, creating fictitious counter trades by buying securities with deferred start dates or with counterparties that did not require immediate confirmation. Using passwords from other SocGen employees, he was able to go back into the system and remove the trades, fooling the risk monitoring tools. It worked for more than two years and reaped a fortune.

In January 2008, though, Kerviel was found out. He had amassed directional positions in European stock indices totalling almost €50 billion ($6.6 billion). The day that the bank began to unwind these positions was “Black Monday”, January 21, when UK, European and Asian markets fell dramatically.

That he was found out in a period of acute market stress is not a coincidence. The hedge fund, Long Term Capital Management, collapsed after the Russian sovereign debt crisis in 1998. The world’s most famous rogue, Nick Leeson, whose limit-busting trades out of Asia brought down Barings Bank, was shaken out in the aftermath of the 1995 Kobe Earthquake. Both events saw highly volatile markets with large price movements.

Like Kerviel at SocGen, Adoboli began his career at UBS in the bank’s IT department, maintaining and managing those same risk systems that were supposed to keep traders in check. Whether he used that knowledge will likely be a thrust of the investigation against him.

While systems and practices differ between banks, traders often admit that limits really are flexible. There are often subtle ways for traders, with good reputations, to go around the risk management practices that, while they reduce the potential for losses, also constrain a trader’s ability to take educated punts when they have a strong conviction.

This, cynical traders say, is why rogues can get away with deceit for long periods: no-one gets fired for winning. It is only when they lose that they have to “go write the book”—that is, be escorted out of the building by security at best, or the police.

Kerviel was, according to SocGen, at it for years. Leeson began his rogue activity in 1992, initially winning big before his fortunes turned and he began to hide his losses in the now infamous account number 88888. Adoboli’s charges—for which he has not entered a plea—cover almost four years.

Traders are understandably reluctant to go on the record about their peers who ‘go rogue’, but as more than one hinted, if you are considered good enough, hard boundaries get softer. If you break the rules and lose, though, you are on your own.

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