By Elisa Martinuzzi and Gavin Finch
Feb. 16 (Bloomberg) -- A dispute is unfolding about how long European Union officials have known that Greece used derivatives to conceal its growing budget deficit.
Greece turned to Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in 2002, just after adopting the euro, to get $1 billion in funding through a swap on $10 billion of debt, Christoforos Sardelis, head of Greece’s Public Debt Management Agency at the time, said in an interview last week. Eurostat, the EU’s statistics office, was aware of the plan, he said. Risk Magazine also reported on the swap in July 2003.
“Eurostat was not until recently aware of this alleged currency swap transaction made by Greece,” spokesman Johan Wullt said by e-mail yesterday.
The disagreement about who knew what and when comes amid the worst crisis in the euro’s 11-year history. The existence of the swaps, which allowed Greece to delay payments and shrink its reported budget deficit, is fueling questions about whether Greece used the contracts to mask the fact it was struggling to comply with the currency’s membership criteria from the early days of its entry into the eurozone.
“Greece falsified deficit statistics, and that can’t be legal,” said Wolfgang Gerke, president of the Bavarian Center of Finance in Munich and honorary professor at the European School of Business. “Greece needs to be kicked out of the EU because otherwise there will be new copycats, and that could lead to the next catastrophe on financial markets.”
EU regulators pressed Greece yesterday to disclose details of currency swaps after an inquiry by the country’s finance ministry uncovered a series of agreements with banks that it may have used to conceal mounting debt.
Legal ‘At the Time’
One issue is whether Greece was legally obliged at the time to notify Eurostat. Finance Minister George Papaconstantinou said yesterday the use of swaps was “at the time legal.” The contracts are now no longer legal, and Greece doesn’t use them, he said during a question-and-answer session at a conference in Brussels yesterday.
Eurostat has required information about swaps since 2007, Wullt said. The watchdog doesn’t need to be notified of individual deals, he added.
“It is legitimate if the underlying exchange rates and the interest rates of such swaps are calculated from the observed market rates and this is something we will have to assess,” European Commission spokesman Amadeu Altafaj said yesterday.
EU regulators have blessed the use of derivatives contracts to let countries curb their deficits. In 2001, the Commission, the EU’s regulatory arm, approved Italy’s use of derivatives that helped to reduce its budget deficit in 1997. Italy swapped fixed payments on a three-year, yen-denominated bond in 1996, for a floating rate, allowing it to temporarily cut the amount of interest paid on the debt.
‘Lurking in the Shadows’
European politicians this week criticized New York-based Goldman Sachs for arranging the Greek swap and are pressing for more disclosure. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats aim to push for new rules that will force euro-region nations and banks to disclose bond swaps that have an impact on public finances, financial affairs spokesman Michael Meister said yesterday.
“Goldman Sachs broke the spirit of the Maastricht Treaty, though it is not certain it broke the law,” Meister said in an interview yesterday. “What is certain is that we must never leave this kind of thing lurking in the shadows again.”
Joanna Carss, a London-based spokeswoman for Goldman Sachs, the most profitable securities firm in Wall Street history, declined to comment.
Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker said euro-area finance ministers discussed Goldman Sachs’s and Greece’s use of derivatives on the fringes of a meeting yesterday in Brussels.
The Goldman Sachs transaction consisted of a cross-currency swap of about $10 billion of debt issued by Greece in dollars and yen, Sardelis said. That was swapped into euros using a historical exchange rate, a mechanism that implied a reduction in debt and generated about $1 billion of funding, he added. Sardelis declined to give specifics on by how much the swap reduced the country’s reported deficit or debt.
Greece, whose burgeoning budget deficit caused it to fail the criteria for joining the single European currency in 1999, joined the euro in 2001. Member nations must keep deficits at less than 3 percent of gross domestic product and trim national debt to less than 60 percent of GDP under the pact.
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, who came to power in October, more than tripled the country’s 2009 deficit estimate to 12.7 percent, and officials last month pledged to provide more reliable statistics after the EU complained of “severe irregularities” in the nation’s economic data.