How to borrow €1bn without adding to your public debt figures | FT Alphaville

How to borrow €1bn without adding to your public debt figures

Something tells us the story of Greece’s €1bn currency swap — and particularly the involvement of a bank everyone loves to hate, Goldman Sachs — is going to run and run.

Therefore we are going to republish a large chunk of the original 2003 story from Risk, which has now been unlocked and can be read in full here.

It provides background to the trade, names of some of the key players, how the risk was hedged and why it never showed up in the books.

It’s a familiar tale of how investment bankers help their clients mask reality — without, of course, doing anything illegal.

In February 2002, the European Commission pointed out future deficit forecasts by Greece relied ‘primarily’ on achieving reductions in interest costs. It called for Greece to reduce its ‘very high’ debt ratio, and to provide ‘more detailed information on financial operations’. Although Greece’s public debt division points out that it uses 18 derivatives counterparties, there is no doubt that the division, which is headed by Christopher Sardelis, has a particularly close relationship with Goldman Sachs. Indeed, the account has been handled personally at Goldman Sachs by Antigone Loudiadis, the London-based European head of sales for the firm’s fixed-income, currencies and commodities unit.

Highly respected by other dealers, Loudiadis has enjoyed a successful career at Goldman, joining the firm’s partnership committee and attaining her present position in 2000. According to sources, by early 2002, Loudiadis and her team put together a deal aimed at alleviating Greece’s problem of debt ratios and high interest costs. The transactions agreed between the Greek public debt division and Goldman Sachs involved cross-currency swaps linked to Greece’s outstanding yen and dollar debt. Cross-currency swaps were among the earliest over-the-counter derivatives contracts to be traded, and have a perfectly routine purpose in debt management, namely to transform the currency of an obligation.

However, according to sources, the cross-currency swaps transacted by Goldman for Greece’s public debt division were ‘off-market’ – the spot exchange rate was not used for re-denominating the notional of the foreign currency debt. Instead, a weaker level of euro versus dollar or yen was used in the contracts, resulting in a mismatch between the domestic and foreign currency swap notionals. The effect of this was to create an upfront payment by Goldman to Greece at inception, and an increased stream of interest payments to Greece during the lifetime of the swap. Goldman would recoup these non-standard cashflows at maturity, receiving a large ‘balloon’ cash payment from Greece.

Goldman Sachs is known for its conservative approach to credit risk, and chose to hedge its exposure to Greece by immediately placing the risk with a well-known investor in sovereign credit: Frankfurt-based Deutsche Pfandbriefe Bank (Depfa). According to sources, Depfa entered into a credit default swap with Goldman Sachs, selling $1 billion of protection on Greece for up to 20 years. Depfa declined to comment.

Equally murky is the exact effect of Goldman Sachs’ transactions on Greece’s publicly reported national accounts. Since the deficit was a comfortable 1.2% of GDP in 2002, it is more likely that the cashflows were either used to help lower the debt/GDP ratio from 107% in 2001, to 104.9% in 2002 (by funding buybacks) or to lower interest payments from 7.4% in 2001 to 6.4% in 2002. But why did the large negative market value of the swaps not appear on the liability side of Greece’s balance sheet?

The answer can be found in ESA95, a 243-page manual on government deficit and debt accounting, published by the European Commission and Eurostat in 2002. As revealed by Piga, the drafting of ESA95’s section on derivatives was the subject of fierce arguments between the government statisticians and debt managers of certain eurozone countries. The statisticians wanted derivatives-related cashflows to be treated as financial transactions, with no effect on deficit or interest costs, and with the derivatives’ current market value stated as an asset or liability. The debt managers opposed this, insisting on having the freedom to use derivatives to adjust deficit ratios.

The published version of ESA95 reflects the victory of the debt managers in this argument with a series of last-minute amendments. In particular, ESA95 states in a page-long ‘clarification’ that ‘streams of interest payments under swaps agreements will continue… having an impact on general government net borrowing/net lending’. In other words, upfront swap payments – which Eurostat classifies as interest – can reduce debt, without the corresponding negative market value of the swap increasing it. According to ESA95, the clarification only covers ‘currency swaps based on existing liabilities’.

Legitimate transaction.There is no doubt that Goldman Sachs’ deal with Greece was a completely legitimate transaction under Eurostat rules. Moreover, both Goldman Sachs and Greece’s public debt division are following a path well trodden by other European sovereigns and derivatives dealers. However, like many accounting-driven derivatives transactions, such deals are bound to create discomfort among those who like accounts to reflect economic reality.

For example, the Greece-Goldman deal may be of interest to credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s, which upgraded Greece’s long-term debt from A to A+ in June 2003. Among other derivatives dealers, the deal is bound to create envy at Goldman Sachs’ skill in solving the risk management needs of such an important client. As long as the current Eurostat rules do not change, the use of derivatives in deficit and debt management by eurozone sovereigns is likely to flourish. The planned expansion of the eurozone to include 15 east European countries may lead to especially rich pickings for dealers able to seize such opportunities.

For more on this, there is also an interesting piece in the New York Times, which details some of the deals Goldman and JP Morgan worked on with the Greek government. Some of them were named after figures in Greek mythology such as Aeolos, the god of winds.

Related links:
Greek woes revive seven-year old Goldman swap story – Risk
The Greeks’ swap probe – FT Alphaville
How Goldman Sachs Helped Greece to Mask its True Debt – Der Spiegel
Lagarde’s look at the market will find its activity murky – Gillian Tett