One big world of cheats

One big world of cheats

This weekend, the New York Times reported that Greece, in the midst of a massive economic crisis, had none other than Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs help it keep its books in the black with some creative financial maneuvers, such as selling away the rights to future lottery earnings.

[Greece] engaged in a decade-long effort to skirt European debt limits. One deal created by Goldman Sachs helped obscure billions in debt from the budget overseers in Brussels. Even as the crisis was nearing the flashpoint, banks were searching for ways to help Greece forestall the day of reckoning. In early November…a team from Goldman Sachs arrived in the ancient city with a very modern proposition for a government struggling to pay its bills.

The story is a bit less fantastic than it seems at first blush. First, Felix Salmon notes, the world has known about the investment banks’ advising the Greek government for the better part of a decade. In 2003, Nick Dunbar of Risk Magazine published a long piece on the giant swap deals Goldman was engineering for Athens.  

Second, Greece is hardly alone in papering over or effectively doctoring its stats. The New York Times article notes that Italy partakes in similar banker-confabulated deals and implies that others do too. France pulled a similar 9 billion euro debt maneuver, revealed in 2006. China cooks its books to boost its GDP numbers. Name any of a dozen developing nations (Zimbabwe springs to mind) and someone will have plausibly accused it of lying with statistics.

But, of course, Greece is no Zimbabwe. The ousted Greek government knew better than to amp up the creative accounting as its economy was tanking. It made a bad situation worse, imperiled Greek livelihoods, hurt its partners in the eurozone, and possibly even destabilized the euro itself.

What I can’t figure out is how much the Eurocrats and eurozone finance ministers knew about these deals. The European Monetary Union has bureaucrats aplenty to keep track of the eurozone economies and prudential measures to prevent countries from over-extending themselves, debt-wise. Is the issue that they didn’t know enough — or that they didn’t act?