The Roots of the Greek Debt Crisis

The crisis in Greece is getting worse. Its people on July 5 voted against the terms of the most recent bailout deal in a referendum, rejecting austerity. If a new deal isn’t reached soon, its government won’t be able to pay its debts and will run out of euros, which many expect it will mean exiting the euro zone. This 2010 Michael Lewis classic for Vanity Fair, “Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds,” helps explain the current situation:

For most of the 1980s and 1990s, Greek interest rates had run a full 10 percent higher than German ones, as Greeks were regarded as far less likely to repay a loan. There was no consumer credit in Greece: Greeks didn’t have credit cards. Greeks didn’t usually have mortgage loans either. Of course, Greece wanted to be treated, by the financial markets, like a properly functioning Northern European country. In the late 1990s they saw their chance: get rid of their own currency and adopt the euro. To do this they needed to meet certain national targets, to prove that they were capable of good European citizenship—that they would not, in the end, run up debts that other countries in the euro area would be forced to repay. In particular they needed to show budget deficits under 3 percent of their gross domestic product, and inflation running at roughly German levels. In 2000, after a flurry of statistical manipulation, Greece hit the targets. To lower the budget deficit the Greek government moved all sorts of expenses (pensions, defense expenditures) off the books. To lower Greek inflation the government did things like freeze prices for electricity and water and other government-supplied goods, and cut taxes on gas, alcohol, and tobacco. Greek-government statisticians did things like remove (high-priced) tomatoes from the consumer price index on the day inflation was measured. “We went to see the guy who created all these numbers,” a former Wall Street analyst of European economies told me. “We could not stop laughing. He explained how he took out the lemons and put in the oranges. There was a lot of massaging of the index.”

Which is to say that even at the time, some observers noted that Greek numbers never seemed to add up. A former I.M.F. official turned economic adviser to former Greek prime minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis turned Salomon Brothers analyst named Miranda Xafa pointed out in 1998 that if you added up all the Greek budget deficits over the previous 15 years they amounted to only half the Greek debt. That is, the amount of money the Greek government had borrowed to fund its operations was twice its declared shortfalls. “At Salomon we used to call [the head of the Greek National Statistical Service] ‘the Magician,’ ” says Xafa, “because of his ability to magically make inflation, the deficit, and the debt disappear.”

In 2001, Greece entered the European Monetary Union, swapped the drachma for the euro, and acquired for its debt an implicit European (read German) guarantee. Greeks could now borrow long-term funds at roughly the same rate as Germans—not 18 percent but 5 percent. To remain in the euro zone, they were meant, in theory, to maintain budget deficits below 3 percent of G.D.P.; in practice, all they had to do was cook the books to show that they were hitting the targets. Here, in 2001, entered Goldman Sachs, which engaged in a series of apparently legal but nonetheless repellent deals designed to hide the Greek government’s true level of indebtedness. For these trades Goldman Sachs—which, in effect, handed Greece a $1 billion loan—carved out a reported $300 million in fees. The machine that enabled Greece to borrow and spend at will was analogous to the machine created to launder the credit of the American subprime borrower—and the role of the American investment banker in the machine was the same. The investment bankers also taught the Greek-government officials how to securitize future receipts from the national lottery, highway tolls, airport landing fees, and even funds granted to the country by the European Union. Any future stream of income that could be identified was sold for cash up front, and spent. As anyone with a brain must have known, the Greeks would be able to disguise their true financial state for only as long as (a) lenders assumed that a loan to Greece was as good as guaranteed by the European Union (read Germany), and (b) no one outside of Greece paid very much attention. Inside Greece there was no market for whistle-blowing, as basically everyone was in on the racket.

And in this essay published in mid-June, Wall Street Journal correspondent Matina Stevis shares her feeling of impotence as she watches her country struggle.

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