How Greece hid its borrowing in the swaps market

By Felix Salmon
February 9, 2010
Beat Balzli has an intriguing story at Spiegel saying that Greece has been hiding the true nature of its deficits and its debt using clever derivatives dreamed up by Goldman Sachs. I believe it, although the details are sparse:

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Beat Balzli has an intriguing story at Spiegel saying that Greece has been hiding the true nature of its deficits and its debt using clever derivatives dreamed up by Goldman Sachs. I believe it, although the details are sparse:

Greece’s debt managers agreed a huge deal with the savvy bankers of US investment bank Goldman Sachs at the start of 2002. The deal involved so-called cross-currency swaps in which government debt issued in dollars and yen was swapped for euro debt for a certain period — to be exchanged back into the original currencies at a later date.

Such transactions are part of normal government refinancing. Europe’s governments obtain funds from investors around the world by issuing bonds in yen, dollar or Swiss francs. But they need euros to pay their daily bills. Years later the bonds are repaid in the original foreign denominations.

But in the Greek case the US bankers devised a special kind of swap with fictional exchange rates. That enabled Greece to receive a far higher sum than the actual euro market value of 10 billion dollars or yen. In that way Goldman Sachs secretly arranged additional credit of up to $1 billion for the Greeks.

This credit disguised as a swap didn’t show up in the Greek debt statistics. Eurostat’s reporting rules don’t comprehensively record transactions involving financial derivatives. “The Maastricht rules can be circumvented quite legally through swaps,” says a German derivatives dealer.

According to Balzli, Goldman has no risk on this deal, after selling the swap to a Greek bank in 2005.

How might a deal like this work? Let’s say that Greece issues a bond for $10 billion, which it would then normally swap into euros at the prevailing interest rate, getting $10 billion worth of euros up front. In this case, it seems, the swap was tweaked so that Greece got $11 billion worth of euros up front — and, of course, has to pay just as many euros back when the bond matures. Essentially, it has borrowed $11 billion rather than $10 billion. But for the purposes of Greece’s official debt statistics, it has borrowed only $10 billion: the extra $1 billion is hidden in the swap.

This wouldn’t be the first time that Goldman came up with a clever capital-markets deal to help a European country get around the Maastricht rules: as far back as 2004, Goldman put together something called Aries Vermoegensverwaltungs for Germany, in which Germany essentially borrowed money at much higher than market rates just so that the borrowing wouldn’t show up in the official statistics. And according to Balzli, Italy has been doing something almost identical to the Greek swap operation, using a different, unnamed, bank.

It’s a bit depressing that EU member states are behaving in this silly way, refusing to come clean on their real finances. But so long as they’re providing the demand for clever capital-markets operations like these, you can be sure that the investment bankers at Goldman and many other investment banks will be lining up to show them ways of hiding reality from Eurostat in Luxembourg.

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