PARIS - French bank Societe Generale said Thursday it has uncovered a $7.14 billion fraud — one of history's biggest — by a single futures trader who fooled investors and overstepped his authority.
The fraud destabilized a major bank already exposed to the subprime crisis. France's second-largest bank by market value said it would be forced to seek 5.5 billion euros ($8.02 billion) in new capital.
Trading in Societe Generale's shares, which have lost nearly half their value over the past six months, was suspended on the Paris bourse. It was unclear when trading would resume.
The bank said it detected the fraud at its French markets division the weekend of Jan. 19-20. In a statement announcing the discovery, it called the fraud "exceptional in its size and nature."
It said a trader at the futures desk had misled investors in 2007 and 2008 through a "scheme of elaborate fictitious transactions."
The trader, who was not named, used his knowledge of the group's security systems to conceal his fraudulent positions, a statement from the bank said.
The individual confessed to the fraud, the bank said, and was being dismissed. His supervisors were to leave the group. Chief Executive Daniel Bouton offered his resignation, but the board rejected it.
An analysis confirmed the "isolated and exceptional nature" of the fraud, the bank said.
The fraud appeared to be the largest ever by a single trader. If confirmed, it would far outstrip the Nick Leeson trading scandal in 1995 that bankrupted British bank Barings. Barings collapsed after Leeson, the bank's Singapore general manager of futures trading, lost 860 million pounds — then worth $1.38 billion — on Asian futures markets, wiping out the bank's cash reserves. The company had been in business for more than 230 years.
The fraud was not as big as the 1991 scandal that led to the demise of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Claims by depositors and creditors exceeded $10 billion at the time.
International bank regulators seized BCCI, which had headquarters in Luxembourg, London and the Cayman Islands, on July 5, 1991. They acted on auditors' reports that described huge losses from illegal loans to corporate insiders and from trading transactions.
At Societe Generale, the fraud announcement came on the back of subprime-related difficulties. Subprime writedowns linked to the crisis in financial markets amounted to euro2.05 billion ($2.99 billion), Societe Generale said.
As a result, the bank is planning a capital hike in the "following weeks."
The write-down and losses will lead the company to post a net profit of euro600 million to euro800 million ($874 million to $1.16 billion) for all of 2007, the Paris-based bank said.
The Bank of France said it was immediately informed of the fraud and was investigating. The French market regulator, the AMF, said it had no comment. France's Banking Federation also declined to comment.
Shares of SocGen closed down 4.1 percent at euro79.08 ($115.25) on Wednesday. Full-year results will be announced Feb. 21.