Why is the media obsessed with where Jérôme Kerviel, aka the mad trader, went to school? You can hardly pick up a newspaper account of Kerviel's shenanigans at Société Générale without reading about how Kerviel attended lowly University of Lyon-an "average college," in the words of the status arbiters at The New York Times.
"Many of his colleagues had been plucked from the prestigious Grandes Ecoles-the Harvards and M.I.T.'s of France-and wielded advanced degrees in math or engineering," the Gray Lady sniffed on Jan. 25, on its front page, no less. "Mr. Kerviel arrived from business school and started out shuffling paper in the back office."
The New York Times wasn't the only one unimpressed with Kerviel's education. The Los Angeles Times noted that he "trained at the nondescript schools of France's second cities." The Wall Street Journal dubbed Kerviel's alma mater "a second-tier business school"-a factoid it delivered in the same front-page story that informed that his mother "cut hair in a low-rent beauty salon off a parking lot."
To be sure, any information about Kerviel during the first days of the SocGen trading scandal was newsworthy, including where he went to school and what his parents did for a living. (According to the WSJ, his father "hammered metal into bed frames in a cinder-block workshop." Less-snarky translation: He was a metalworker.)
Of course, there's a certain sexiness to a bank established by Napoleon and known for hiring the crème de la crème nearly toppled by a guy who didn't hail from the Grandes Ecoles. What was striking, however, was how Kerviel's ordinary background-the Times dubbed him "Mr. Average"-almost eclipsed the entire story. Never mind that the top dogs at SocGen-geniuses with elite degrees-blew several opportunities to uncover Kerviel's "rogue" trades; the media, at least initially, preferred to focus on Kerviel's purportedly subpar education and lowly social rank and class. Even the fact that he didn't progress above a green belt in judo was grist for the media mill.
The Times, supplier of the judo tidbit, worked the class angle especially hard. Reading its coverage, especially in the scandal's early days, you would think that everyone at SocGen, from the janitor to the savviest quant, had a degree from the Ecoles. Kerviel "was lucky to be [at SocGen] at all," the Times clucked. However, the desk on which Kerviel traded was hardly the epitome of the bank's sophisticated derivatives operation; its traders take opposite bets on the direction of the markets. So how many of Kerviel's "colleagues" really came from France's elite schools?
By Jan. 29, the Times seemed to imply, not many. A story that day described his background as being in "contrast to his pedigreed superiors," not his co-workers. It's a subtle difference from the earlier reporting, but worth noting. Still, the Times' obsession with educational credentials persisted.
Take the Jan. 27 piece on Dow Kim and Thomas G. Maheras, formerly of Merrill Lynch & Co. and Citigroup Inc., respectively, who both lost high-ranking jobs in the subprime mess. "Mr. Kim and Mr. Maheras, both 45, took different routes to the top at their respective banks," we learn. "Born in South Korea, Mr. Kim received an elite education in the United States, attending the prep school Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and earning undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania."
A few paragraphs later, we get the 411 on poor Maheras: "Mr. Maheras, the son of a Greek immigrant, is a Notre Dame graduate who got his first taste of markets as a runner on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange."
So what are we supposed to infer from this? That Phillips-and-Penn grad Kim has an "elite education" and Maheras, who went to non-Ivy Notre Dame, does not? Is that what's "different" about the two men's routes? That's how the piece reads, though we'd like to know when Notre Dame became a school to scoff at.
Weirdly enough, later in the story, Maheras' Everyman-ness becomes cause for celebration: "A direct, ingenuous man who lacks the guile and gloss of most bankers who have reached such a high position, he has told colleagues how upset he is that he did not discover the scale of the losses sooner, though he has not pointed fingers."
Guile and gloss. So that's what they teach at those elite institutions.
Yvette Kantrow is executive editor at The Deal.