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Austrian subprime woes turn into political hot potato

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The Austrian government debt agency’s two-year old foray into subprime investments has turned into a political hot potato and sparked an increasingly heated debate between the Social Democrats and conservatives, caught in an uneasy but coalition government without viable alternative.

Austria’s audit court last week revealed that the agency, which in its staid day job issues government bonds and makes sure state coffers are full when they need to be, started to moonlight on money markets in 2002 to earn a little extra money on the side.

Its cash position ballooned from an average 4.5 billion euros in 2002 to a peak of 26.8 billion euros in October 2007. This level “was not only determined by economic necessities, but was also meant to generate additional revenues,” the audit court said in its report.

Sure enough, as much as 10.8 billion euros went into asset-backed commercial paper (ABCP), a class of structured investments that became disreputable when the subprime crisis broke out in 2007. Luckily, the debt agency got away only slightly bruised, with up to 380 million euros in possible losses from those investments.

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