NEWSMAKER - London Whale took big bets below the surface

LONDON/PARIS Sat May 12, 2012 1:38am IST

A man walks past the JP Morgan headquarters at Canary Wharf in London May 11, 2012. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

A man walks past the JP Morgan headquarters at Canary Wharf in London May 11, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Dylan Martinez

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LONDON/PARIS (Reuters) - Bruno Iksil was dubbed the 'London Whale' in credit markets due to the size of the trading positions he took, but for years he stayed well below the surface avoiding detection.

Now, the French-born JPMorgan trader has been dragged from the anonymity of the trading floor into the eye of a very public storm over a $2 billion trading loss at the U.S. investment bank where Iksil worked in a little-known group called the Chief Investment Office (CIO).

Friends, colleagues and fellow traders describe an unassuming man, a far cry from the brash image normally associated with traders staking huge bets in fast-moving financial markets, including derivatives.

"He's a really nice bloke. A quiet bloke. He's not an arrogant trader, he's quite the opposite. He's very charming," one former colleague at JPMorgan said of Iksil, whom he said was married with "a couple of kids".

Iksil, who graduated in engineering in 1991 from the Ecole Centrale in Paris, looks older than he is, seldom wears a suit, and according to ex-colleagues lives outside central London.

"He's a balding chap with grey and dark hair. I'd say he's in his 40s," the ex-colleague said, adding that there were not many young traders in CIO, a relatively isolated group where everybody was in their thirties and forties.

"Nobody wears suits in CIO. You don't meet clients face to face," he added.

There have been no suggestions that Iksil's activities were in any way irregular, but over a period of years he and his team amassed a book of bets estimated by some to be $100 billion.

When these became public, opportunistic hedge funds could not resist trading against the 'Whale'.

As markets moved against him, whispers of Iksil's enormous latent losses circulated, ultimately undermining JPMorgan's reputation as the canniest risk-manager in global finance.

For all the talk of the 'Whale', the handful of London-based bankers and traders who have done business with him say they know little about the man behind the trades.

"Everyone knows The Whale, whenever there was a big move in CDS markets, you knew it was the Whale," one hedge fund manager said, adding that Iksil managed to maintain "a very low-profile" out of kilter with his big influence on the multi-trillion dollar credit default swaps market.

TECHNICAL SKILL

The trader's friends were upset with Iksil being thrust into the limelight.

"I am not happy with the way Bruno has been singled out. His name has been mentioned because in the last few years - 2008, 2009, 2010 - he delivered excellent results for the bank," a friend who was also a former colleague said.

"His understanding of the markets, his technical skill, mean he has become someone with real credibility. Although he is in some ways in the centre of the world, at JPMorgan in London, he is pretty detached and does not have a culture of money," they added.

Iksil, who did not return calls or emails, is a member of London's thriving French expatriate community, estimated at 350,000 people, which includes a large contingent of professionals involved in banking.

French banks like BNP Paribas (BNPP.PA) and Societe Generale (SOGN.PA) have big London bases and French finance workers, famed for their top-notch mathematical skills acquired at France's prestigious "grande ecole" universities, are in high demand among international rivals and hedge funds, especially in areas such as equity derivatives.

Senior traders and dealers described Iksil as a "bright guy", who was faithfully executing strategies demanded by the bank's risk management model but who may have simply misjudged the amount of liquidity in the markets.

Iksil's bosses include Achilles Macris and Ina Drew, both well-known as strong personalities with ambitions to grow the CIO, allowing their charges to trade freely in all products with the exception of commodities, the first ex-employee said.

Iksil's former colleague in the CIO unit said that his managers "were happy to sign off on the trades".

(Reporting by Lionel Laurent in Paris, Douwe Miedema, Tommy Wilkes, Sarah White, Sophie Sassard and Christoper Whittall at IFR; Writing by Sinead Cruise and Alexander Smith; Editing by Jon Boyle)

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