The Greek debt crisis offers another illustration of Wall Street’s powers of persuasion and predation, although the Street is missing from most accounts.
The crisis was exacerbated years ago by a deal with Goldman Sachs, engineered by Goldman’s current CEO, Lloyd Blankfein. Blankfein and his Goldman team helped Greece hide the true extent of its debt, and in the process almost doubled it. And just as with the American subprime crisis, and the current plight of many American cities, Wall Street’s predatory lending played an important although little-recognized role.
In 2001, Greece was looking for ways to disguise its mounting financial troubles. The Maastricht Treaty required all eurozone member states to show improvement in their public finances, but Greece was heading in the wrong direction. Then Goldman Sachs came to the rescue, arranging a secret loan of 2.8 billion euros for Greece, disguised as an off-the-books “cross-currency swap”—a complicated transaction in which Greece’s foreign-currency debt was converted into a domestic-currency obligation using a fictitious market exchange rate.
As a result, about 2 percent of Greece’s debt magically disappeared from its national accounts. Christoforos Sardelis, then head of Greece’s Public Debt Management Agency, later described the deal to Bloomberg Business as “a very sexy story between two sinners.” For its services, Goldman received a whopping 600 million euros ($793 million), according to Spyros Papanicolaou, who took over from Sardelis in 2005. That came to about 12 percent of Goldman’s revenue from its giant trading and principal-investments unit in 2001—which posted record sales that year. The unit was run by Blankfein.
Then the deal turned sour. After the 9/11 attacks, bond yields plunged, resulting in a big loss for Greece because of the formula Goldman had used to compute the country’s debt repayments under the swap. By 2005, Greece owed almost double what it had put into the deal, pushing its off-the-books debt from 2.8 billion euros to 5.1 billion. In 2005, the deal was restructured and that 5.1 billion euros in debt locked in. Perhaps not incidentally, Mario Draghi, now head of the European Central Bank and a major player in the current Greek drama, was then managing director of Goldman’s international division.
Greece wasn’t the only sinner. Until 2008, European Union accounting rules allowed member nations to manage their debt with so-called off-market rates in swaps, pushed by Goldman and other Wall Street banks. In the late 1990s, JPMorgan enabled Italy to hide its debt by swapping currency at a favorable exchange rate, thereby committing Italy to future payments that didn’t appear on its national accounts as future liabilities.