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Organized Decoupling of Management Control Systems: An Exploratory Study of Traders’ Unethical Behavior

Abstract

Enduring unethical behavior in trading has generated much research interest, and scholars disagree on the reasons for this situation. According to MacIntyre (2015), this has to do with the personal traits of traders, whereas Rocchi and Thunder (2019) argue this is due to permissive work environment that can potentially be changed to favoring ethical trading. We contribute to this debate by exploring how interactions between organizational culture and management control systems (MCSs) may affect the enduring unethical behaviors of traders. We conceptualize this with the concepts of organized hypocrisy (Brunsson 1986, 1989, 1993) and decoupling (Meyer and Rowan 1977). An in-depth case study of fraud (Jerome Kerviel at Societe Generale), informs the empirical inquiry. We develop the concept of organized decoupling to characterize how the MCSs are articulated with the organizational culture favoring unethical behavior, while being used as a ‘safety mechanism’ to manage the legal and reputational risk of the bank. The analysis highlights three key features of the organized decoupling of MCS: physical distance, technical distance and social distance. The study contribution lies in showing that decoupling is not only emergent but might be intended and therefore organized. The findings also raise doubts on the role of MCSs in monitoring trading activities as presented by investment banking institutions and regulators, suggesting more organized hypocrisy, and raising significant concerns regarding the creation of tolerable work environment welcoming ethical behaviors in the investment banking sector.

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Notes

  1. Interestingly, Meyer and Rowan (1977), in their seminal paper, suggest “Decoupling and maintenance of face, in other words, are mechanisms that maintain the assumption that people are acting in good faith” (p. 359).

  2. For similar case-studies on publicly disclosed fraud, please see Courtois and Gendron (2017) and Gabbioneta et al. (2013).

  3. In France, there is an official court transcript of the trial, and a journalistic transcript. Nevertheless, public disclosure of films or records of trials is illegal, with few exceptions.

  4. La Dépêche, Le Monde and La Tribune.

  5. Available online, on the bank website.

  6. Internal auditing unit.

  7. The limited number of interviewees is due to the continued significant sensitivity of the Kerviel case in France.

  8. Interviewees came from the broad social network of the research team (former students, colleagues, friends…). Many who initially agreed later refused to be interviewed. Those who accepted insisted their names not appear in any document.

  9. Delta One Desks are not covered by the new proprietary trading restrictions in the U.S. (see the Volcker Rule (July 2010), a federal U.S. regulation notably prohibiting a bank or institution that owns a bank from engaging in proprietary trading).

  10. Otherwise, risk management and compliance control are part of the back office.

  11. The Institute of Internal Auditors published a report titled: The Three Lines of Defense in Effective Risk Management and Control.

  12. Occasionally referred to as DLP in extracts from the reports.

  13. A forward is a derivative contract. “It is an agreement to buy or sell an asset at a certain future time for a certain price, in contrast to a spot contract, which is almost immediate. A forward contract is traded in the over-the-counter (OTC) market–usually between two financial institutions or with one of its clients. One of the parties to this contract assumes a long position by agreeing to purchase the underlying asset on a certain specified future date for a certain specified price. The other party assumes a short position by agreeing to sell the asset on the specified date and price.” (Hull 2014, p. 6–7).

    Similar to a forward contract, a futures contract is an agreement between two parties to buy or sell at a certain date and a certain price. The main differences are that futures are highly standardized contracts that are traded on organized exchanges. The exchange’s clearinghouse also provides guarantees that the contract will be honored because the two parties might not know each other and this mitigates counterparty risk.

  14. His main activity was on turbo warrants.

  15. This term is a jargon term used at SOCGEN and other institutions.

  16. His daily official limit was set at €125 million.

  17. Depending on the context and the firm, the practice may also be coined “P&L smoothing”, “EOY management”, “P&L volatility management”, where EOY means End Of Year.

  18. We distinguish risk management from other middle office controls because of the centrality of risk management for trading activities.

  19. Value at Risk (VaR) is a metric used to determine the extent of potential losses in banks' institutional portfolios.

  20. A front office computer application.

  21. This point is also supported by reports on the first trial (La Tribune, 2010).

  22. A company that performs external valuation of assets supposedly independently, but is paid by the organization evaluated and is also exerting some kind of monopoly.

  23. https://www.businessinsurance.com/article/19971012/story/10009976/lloyds-offers-cover-for-rogue-trading.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Yves Gendron, Simone de Colle, Marco Clemente, Claudia Gabbioneta, Frank de Bakker, Bryant Hudson, François Maon, Aude Deville, Domenico Campano, Cynthia Courtois, Akanksha Malik, the participants of the first EIASM workshop on Fraud and Accounting Scandals 2019 (France), the participants of the 2020 ICOR Research Day held by IESEG School of Management (France), and participants of the Sub-theme 53 of EGOS 2020 conference (Hamburg, Germany), for their insightful comments. We also thank Charles Cho and the two reviewers for their help in developping further this paper. Finally, we are grateful to Joanne Deller and Amanda Jones for their help in the copy-editing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Aziza Laguecir.

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Appendix

Appendix

List of articles.

Year/newspapers La Dépêche Le Monde La Tribune
2010 61 37 18
2012 21 27 12
2016 11 12 21
Total 210 93 76 41

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Laguecir, A., Leca, B. Organized Decoupling of Management Control Systems: An Exploratory Study of Traders’ Unethical Behavior. J Bus Ethics (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-021-04741-3

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Keywords

  • Management control systems
  • Financial trading
  • Unethical behavior
  • Organized decoupling
  • Organized hypocrisy
  • Organizational culture